Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Curtain Falls on Dickens (and Obama)

The last curtain falls this afternoon, Dec. 31, on A Christmas Carol at McCarter Theater. It's a great new production, which makes me happy in general, but also for McCarter and the director Adam Immerwahr. Adam was the director of our Onstage community theater group for four years.

The production features a more diverse cast, and a large contingent of community members who mingle with the crowd before the show in period costumes, then appear in group scenes on stage. Ebenezer and the ghosts speak in less grand, echoey tones of voice than in the previous production, more everyday, bringing them closer to people we may know in our own lives.

How profound the contrast this year, between Ebenezer's transformation and the transformation about to occur in Washington, where kindness, generosity of spirit, and empathy are about to be sent packing. In the arts, we're so regularly exposed to happy endings, where good wins out, that we take for granted that the world will work that way, too. How hard the world is working to prove otherwise.

Meanwhile, I ran into the one and only original manuscript of A Christmas Carol on display at the Morgan Library and Museum in NY.

Dickens wrote the story quickly, but wasn't afraid to revise and hone the language.

Friday, December 23, 2016

FIGuring Out A Use for Old Carpets

When fig tree stems stand naked against the arctic air, the buds burn and the stems die back to the ground. Though new stems sprout in the spring, no fruit is borne. Three years in a row this has happened, for lack of protection. Finally, in the waning light one recent afternoon, with a 15 degree night approaching, Mr. Sustainable was finally moved to action. There was a new roll of burlap to wrap around them, but it wasn't long enough. What to do?

The internet called for wrapping them in old carpets, but where to get one?

What a coincidence that the Kurbside Kmart just across the street was having a holiday sale on discarded carpet.

It was hard for Mr. Sustainable to cut a decent looking carpet in two, even one that had been lying on the curb for three weeks. But cut he did, and the result was these two characters, or shall we call them FIGures, each wrapped around a fig tree.

But there was a third fig tree and no more carpet. What to do? Fortunately, Mr. Sustainable had retrieved discarded silt fencing from another Kurbside Kmart elsewhere in the neighborhood. It just looked useful, somehow. Little did he know how prescient that bit of scavenging would prove to be.

Silt fencing is that tough, element-proof fabric they install on building sites to catch dirt before it erodes into the street. One of the paradoxes of government is that we have elaborate controls on runoff from construction sites, while allowing spraying of fertilizer, etc. on lawns and dumping of leaves in the street, which create far more nutrient-rich runoff than erosion from these scattered building sites ever would.

But we were talking about figs.

The black silt fencing made a fine wrap for the third fig tree. The remaining burlap was wrapped on the outside, to better deflect the sunlight and avoid roasting the fig tree on sunny winter days.

Mr. Sustainable scored his third win-win a few days later when, needing some thick plastic bags, he thought of buying new bags at the hardware store, then remembered seeing a pile of bagged leaves down the street. The town doesn't pick up leaves bagged in plastic, and the bags might remain there for weeks before the owner caught on. A truckload of those gave Mr. Sustainable all the bags he needed, plus some leaves to pile on the last remnants of invasive english ivy along the fenceline.

There were imaginary high fives all around, with hopes for a fig or two come summer.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Straddling Two Worlds at the Gas Station

Compartmentalization was a trick of the mind that pundits would attribute to Bill Clinton, when he was having to attend to his presidential duties while fending off the endless attacks launched by the Republican Congress.

But it's something we all do to sustain our view of ourselves as basically good people while we contribute daily to the unraveling of planetary functions. We still have little practical choice as individuals but to unintentionally hasten civilization and the planet towards apocalypse. For that ethical bind, we can point to those cowardly, reckless and opportunistic politicians who deny the existence of and solutions for climate change. Through their failure to act, through their refusal to acknowledge that freedom must be accompanied by responsibility, we still have little choice but to harm our children's future by continuing to seed the atmosphere with CO2 just to get through the day.

Pause now to consider, with a sense of awe, how adept we are at compartmentalization. Even though most people acknowledge the grave risk posed by a radically altered climate, sanity requires an insulatory mechanism that keeps thoughts of climate change at a distance, much like the unconscious effort we constantly expend to shut out background noise, which as it happens is mostly generated by those same climate changing machines.

If you've ever been somewhere outdoors away from the machine sounds of cars and planes, you may have noticed your body and mind relaxing in a new way. That is how it feels to me when my mind no longer has to work at blocking out background noise. You don't even realize what a mental burden you've been under until that burden is removed. Imagine the feeling of freedom and relief we would feel, a deep inner release of tension, if we were no longer trapped in the role of hastening climate change as we drive our cars and heat our homes.

I began driving before warnings were sounded about climate change, and even though I think daily about the dangers of using carbon energy from underground, I can still pull into a gas station without giving a thought to the greater meaning of the transaction at hand.

Filling the tank seems like just one more thing to do, along with buying groceries. Unlike cigarette packaging, there's no warning on the gas pump. In New Jersey, we sit passively in our cars while the gas is pumped for us. The experience is completely sanitized. Then, on the highway, we're insulated from the noise of the engine. The exhaust pipe is hidden behind us, and the CO2 is invisible. We look ahead as we drive, intent on where we need to go, but where we're headed collectively is being determined by what's pouring out of the back of the car. And it's all perfectly legal. In a safety obsessed culture, it is (im)perfectly legal to contribute to future apocalypse. In fact, this behavior is our most visible public activity, a massive ethical lapse on full display for our children to wonder at, although they too will become expert over time at insulating their awareness.

Growing up with gasoline--the almost pleasant sting of its smell, the play of light as it flowed into the tank of the lawnmower--I remember feeling reassured that the main products of its combustion are carbon dioxide and water. Harmless, I thought, and how I wish now it were so, that the world's good and bad hadn't turned upside down. How I wish that my most lasting daily legacy, what the earth will still remember of me centuries and millennia from now, would be something other than the sequestered carbon I knowingly summoned from the pump and scattered to the winds, so that I could live a normal life in this abnormal age.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

From Farm Silos To Leaf Corrals

How much do our ancestors speak through our lawn care? One of my grandfathers was a farmer/carpenter. The other doubled as an urban chemistry professor and summertime country minister. What a surprise that I bring a country ethic to town living, and am drawn to physical work while preaching a mix of a professor's science and a farmer's common sense.

That yellow aluminum patio chair out next to the curb in the photo? A neighbor left it next to a dumpster, destined for the landfill. What a waste, said the farmer in me, who wishes to see everything reused or recycled. There's some good aluminum in that. And so it ended up on my curb for the next scrap guy who drove by.

And the leaf corral, filled to the brim with leaves, standing proudly in the front yard for the community to see, and maybe even emulate? The satisfaction of filling it goes deeper that adhering to what every farmer and organic gardener knows, that nutrients need to be cycled back into the ground, not wasted out in a noisy, fumey purging onto pavement where the leaves become a hazard and municipal burden. That column, a gathered harvest of sorts, stirs a feeling of rightness as rewarding as a silo filled with corn to feed the cattle through the winter. I see it and remember drives through the farm country of Wisconsin as a kid, the silos standing like exclamation points next to the barns.

After a long rain, the leaves have settled down, leaving room for more. A leaf corral's quick settling accommodates the leisurely pace with which nearby oak trees drop their leaves.

New Jersey seems culturally hardwired to blow/rake leaves out onto the street. Leaves, with such a mindset, are the enemy of tidiness, a curse from above, to be sent out of town like troublesome kids exported to a boarding school. A leaf corral, whether displayed or hidden behind shrubs, offers an alternative to the pavement, and allows not only a tidy yard but a tidy and safe street as well. The leaves in the photo, which had blown against the curb and started to clog the drain, got raked up and put in the leaf corral. Multiply that small gesture 10,000 times across the community and you end up with clean streets, lower taxes, and more nutrients for people's yards. But such win-win-win arguments are like leaves in the wind against the bedrock of NJ custom. No doubt my grandfather ran into similar depths of habit in his Sunday morning ministering.

You can see the different pace of decomposition among different species. Those are oak leaves on the upper left, a Norway maple from across the street on the lower left, and silver maple leaves already crumbling up and transitioning back into earth. If kept reasonably moist, they'll all become compost by next fall in the leaf corral, without any need to stir the contents.

A close look reveals that the center of the leaf corral is a column of critterproof hardware cloth where kitchen scraps go, to decompose odorlessly along with the leaves.

This 3' diameter leaf corral holds enough leaves to disguise and buffer the inner foodscrap composter. A 6' diameter leaf corral holds far more, in fact is sufficient for the entire front yard.

Who knows what my grandfathers, whom I never knew, would think of this front yard contraption. I like to think I'm carrying on their tradition in my own way, in a new place and for a new century.