Friday, July 13, 2018

A Bird Named Stubby and the Practical Lessons of Ecology

By Bob Ferris

I used to delight myself and some on Facebook by posting pictures of the little garter snakes that would live in the cracks of our cement patio.  Often five or six of the colorful snakes would intertwine and it became a challenge to count them all.  They were here during the warmth and gone when things got frosty.  When together they congregated near the patio chair where I would read with my head and book in the shade and my bare feet sun-kissed.  We were not quite companions but they seemed not bothered by my presence unless I drew close.

I could always tell when they returned because my wife would let loose an especially shrill scream.  I could not dampen this response no matter how often I talked of their tendency to eat slugs or bugs...  never biting or eating small children or even gardening wives.  For the last two years my wife has not had one of these special garden screams.  Strange, but that fact did not register until we were watching The Shape of Water.  When the creature lunged towards us from the screen my wife gave a garter snake worthy scream.  It nudged me.

I looked around the yard scanning it for signs of these ribbon-bright, slug-suckers and saw nothing.  Where had they gone?  I missed them, but a lot of other nature had appeared such as a fallen nestling acorn woodpecker I raised until it could return to its tree.  There were also the scrub jays that nested in our lilac producing three fledglings this past year; one of which was missing all but one tail feather.  We called him "Stubby" and his flight path mostly resembled half a corkscrew.  He was awkward but lived.

We think that Stubby and his siblings remain, though after the molt they look mainly the same.  I call all of them Stubby when I talk to them.  They do not seem to care much.  And now the crows join them at times for some sort of corvid conference or something.  Not sure exactly the nature of the gathering other than it is noisy.  But the aforementioned movie scream reminded me of the missing snakes.  Questions needed to be asked.
Me: Isn't it weird that we have not seen the garter snakes for a couple of years?
Carlene: I've seen them.
Me: Where?
Carlene: With Stubby.  He was eating one.
Me: Ah.
So the mystery of the missing snakes was solved.  Ecology.   Yes, I remember that stuff.  The snakes were gone and it turns out that scrub jays also eat slugs in addition to small, colorful snakes.  Who knew?  Well I guess I did or I once did.  In our garden as in wilder settings species assemblages change.  I could miss the snakes and still not regret the jays.  My wife yipped less with Stubby and his gray mantled crew and that was perhaps a welcome change.  We never named the snakes.  I wonder why.


When my wife came home from a camping trip moments ago we found that at least one garter snake survived Stubby and crew this summer.  The good news being that this one was clearly larger and larger in the area that means more garter snakes soon.  Gravid she appears hiding in leaf mulch below one of our pineapple guavas. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Viva Mexico and Five Miles of Beloved Country

View of the Willamette Valley and the Cascade Mountains beyond.  Hazy but there.

By Bob Ferris

I am not an angry, aging hiker.  I do not believe that each stomp I take up a mountain chases time backwards.  Some see me as a polite hiker letting them pass up or down.  But I am not that either.  I feign courtesy as a ploy for breath.  Not a desperate, pink-face ploy, but I know that one could be waiting round the next corner or somewhere beyond that.  No, I am more of a thinking and watching hiker.  Nature brings me ideas and thoughts like some form of neural nourishment.

Leaves of three let me be.  
Recently I hiked up Spencer Butte in Eugene.  I like this hump and its nearly 800 foot climb.  It tests but not too much.  It is a little more on the order of a "pop quiz" rather than a full-blown final as it gives you aspects of a challenge, but the after-effects are fleeting.  Roughly two thirds of the way up I met a young lad with his family who took the time to warn me about the dangers of poison oak.  I thanked him for the advice remembering time spent doing this same act three decades ago in outdoor schools.  It made me think of a poor student who must have stuck her face in the stuff.  She was uncharitably identified by the moniker "elephant-head" before her parents came to take her home.  I though at the time that her ears would simply continue to swell until they separated themselves from her head.  I thought of my wife too who following a poison oak encounter for a time existed like the creature in The Shape of Water only able to find comfort in oatmeal-infused bathwater for weeks following our honeymoon. 

Then I reached the first set of carved stone steps and the climb began in earnest, the slopes before only teasing.  This too was where the sun struck and the views came.  Out of the cooling trees peeks at vistas emerged as encouragement and portents of the top.  There is a tacit empathic exchange that happens here with those going down showing they survived and often passing encouraging looks or words to those going up.  I tend to do the latter more with the young and old those deserving and needing it most.  The same is true for the gravitationally challenged who often have a profound cocoon-like quality in their struggles.   

I often share this summit with friends.  Here from nearly two years ago. Hikers all in the 60s save one.
When I gained the summit I stared round the perimeter and watched my fellow hikers take in the views and recover their wind.  One large, multi-generational family that followed closely on my heels was Hispanic and I immediately surmised that they were from Mexico.  I backtracked from that thought thinking about the problems with that assumption.  These folks could also be from anywhere in Central or South America except probably not Brazil as they were clearly speaking Spanish and not Portuguese.  In this I suspect that those from Nicaragua or Costa Rica dislike being called Mexican as much as Italians do being misidentified as from Spain, but probably not as much as Australians and New Zealanders from each other.  Their three-year old solved it for me by doing a Sound of Music-like spin at the summit, raising her arms to the sky, and bolding exclaiming: Viva Mexico! 

That sealed it.  I smiled at her for a very good and deep reason.  For with the girl's proud cry still ringing in my ears I recalled a tale my mother often tells of a ship arriving in port and another child.  The port is likely New York, Boston, or maybe even Baltimore or Philadelphia and the time is right near or after the close of the American Revolution.  Family legend talks about this young child at the rail of a recently moored ship seeing a welcoming band and banners at dockside and then yelling in a jubilant and clear voice: God Save the King!

I remember this story clearly but cannot bring to mind exactly who this child was. It could have been one of the Ramsay twins (Andrew or William) coming back to their homeland from school in Scotland after their father Patrick's death in Glasgow.  Perhaps it was Andrew who years later dined with George Washington and whose son, also named George, served as a Union general in the Civil War. 

Another candidate could be one of the Gales children, perhaps Thomas, sailing with their mother Winifred fleeing arrest in Great Britain for printing revolutionary works like those written by Thomas Paine.  I like the idea of it being Thomas as he later tore down the British flag in Pensacola while serving on Andrew Jackson's staff. 

It could also have been young David Barr Robb arriving with his nurse from Ireland to rejoin his parents and family in York, Pennsylvania.  Robb, who was later a state congressman in Indiana, was thought too young or too much to flee with his sassafras tea-smuggling father James, pregnant mother, and siblings.  David's father a former ship's captain and escapee from a British jail in Ireland fought in the Revolution as a private and David along with his brothers served in the War of 1812.   It could have been any of these.  Don't know.

And it truly does not matter because the point is that "God Save the King" and this "Viva Mexico" are basically the same type of utterance.  They are the proud and happy exclamations of children and should always be valued regardless of their content and where they are proclaimed.  These are songs from singers unaware of politics, geography, or that they were the subject of parental efforts on their behalf to gain better, safer, and more promising lives than they would had previously enjoyed.  They understand all these nuances and complexities in a manner similar to the infants and toddlers now sitting alone wearing headphones in US courtrooms and crying in another fashion that we all should hear.  That is, specifically, they understand not at all. 

Ann Coulter has some Irish roots and so do I.  But the Irish were once treated much the same as Muslims or Hispanics are treated today.  Some of us were informed and sensitized by that experience and others waited for someone to kick as hard as they had been booted.  
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter recently claimed that her ancestors were not immigrants nor refugees but rather "settlers."  I suppose that was in some way meant to differentiate her blood lines from those poor souls now knocking on the same door, for the same reasons, and asking for the same admittance.  This is such a silly line of reasoning and transparently racist.  I look back at my family lines stretching back to the Mayflower and those Europeans who first came to New York and Virginia and they all were moved via some sort of religious, economic, or political reverse-osmosis going from places with little opportunity for wealth, or even life, to this land with more. 

My ancestors were probably as good as most but they prayed the wrong way, backed the wrong leader, or were like chicks hatched into a nest with too many mouths.  They were often persecuted, chased, exiled, or indentured for these or allied reasons.  They were not folks casually looking for a better deck chair on a cruise ship, but people hoping they would find a seat on a lifeboat when the water was up to their knees.  They all had a cloud and through that shined.  They became "settlers" but they all were immigrants and refugees before.  (My mother's maiden name was Settles or Settle so they probably started as "settlers.")

I climbed out of this retrospective state and I found myself watching the family for a while partially out of interest and also concern.   These are tough times and I felt some protective ownership for the important pieces of commonality my broader family shared with theirs.  I felt strongly that I did not want this family's enjoyment of this special place ruined by someone's thoughtlessness, hatred, or umbrage over this child's geographic origins, race, or the language the family spoke freely and joyfully as they absorbed the views and even marveled over the aggressive ground squirrels.  Nothing came.  It was Sunday and the people here worshiped nature, exercise, and beauty.  Perhaps it is hard to hold all those wonderful elements close and hatred too.  I smiled at the family and left.

I added an extra two miles to my hike this day traveling down to the Fox Hollow trailhead and back.  Perhaps I wanted to push myself more or was reluctant to leave the wonder of this trail.  I found myself smiling or greeting most everyone I encountered.  I met an Asian woman with hiking poles wearing a hat from Alaska while her hiking partner who bordered on the Nordic wore one from Hawaii.  I stepped aside for the young woman running up and the older man running down each reminding me of an old, orange VW bug I once owned and how it would creep by loaded semis on an incline--a strange race between the under-powered and over-loaded.  We each gained something from the exchange in that I was pleased that my long steps were nearly a run and they were grateful that nothing broke their belabored strides.  I was happy in this place and it cost all of us nothing to be nice to each other.  Imagine that?

When done I sat on a rock in the parking lot and rehydrated.  I was sweating too much to hop in my truck.  I did not want to marinate my seat back with salt and the essence of locker room.  So I sipped and watched hikers return to their cars.  Most seemed enriched by the experience with the exception of one couple and child who appeared on the verge of all three going in separate directions once gone.  I had seen them bickering on the trail and could not help but think they were disgruntled before they came and nothing here would change that happenstance.

Fox Hollow Trailhead of the Ridgeline Trail.
As a drop of sweat hit my dusty shoe tip I concluded that the five miles that I had covered this day was a microcosm of America.  Our strengths.  Our weaknesses.  Our promise.  And our challenges and choices.  We could gravitate towards the top with its long views and acceptance or we could appreciate nothing and exit the bottom unhappy with our plight.   I felt like long-gone Andrew, Thomas, and David would join me in saying: Viva MexicoViva Mexico, indeed.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Trump Looking for the Ones Who Say: Yes.

James Colburn as Derek Flint. 
Bob Ferris

There once was an unfortunate joke, or perhaps it was more correctly an urban legend, that was circulated by guys of a certain age back when we did not know any better and society seemed to more overtly encourage a certain predatory behavior in males.  This was back when Sean Connery was Bond and James Coburn was In Like Flint.  It was a story about a guy who decided to cast off all pretense of romance and simply ask every attractive women he met if they would join him in bed.  Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.  The punchline being that he got slapped a lot but every so once in a while one said: Yes.  The point being that no matter how ridiculous and unseemly the request eventually someone, somewhere will act on it...particularly if they have been primed or conditioned to do so.

I think of this as I look at the tragedy of what happened in Annapolis at the Capital Gazette offices and the five journalists murdered.  On my mind also is all that is happening to those likely harmed in part as a result of irresponsible, false, and demonizing rhetoric. So when the president harps on Fake News and characterizes journalists as enemies of the American People or identifies those from Mexico as rapists should we be surprised that folks shout at journalists, yell as those who are brown, or do something far worse?  My sense is that we really should not be.

The effect of this kind of manipulation can be both profound and subtle.  Candidate Trump, for example, calling for acts against protestors at his rallies creates an atmosphere that licenses if not encourages violence.  It is not a monumental leap from Trump's "get 'em out of here" and "I'd like to punch him in the face" or other similar suggestive rhetoric to the direct action of one of his supporters actually punching a protestor in the face (see video above) or becoming physical in other manners.  In fact, this matter is currently in the courts

The subtle part of this goes towards changing the norm.  To me this is akin to a door opening.  What should be the expected outcome when someone who fears or hates Muslims is then given what amounts to permission to act via injudicious comments by a politician, pastor, or media personality implying that many or most practitioners of this religion are terrorists?  Not surprisingly, attacks in the US on Muslims are on the rise and actually higher now than right after 9/11 (1,2,3).  The same is true for economically-challenged people when handed a scapegoat of a different color or background such as Latinos (1,2,3).   If there is a seed of hatred or resentment present it does not take much soil or water to make it grow.

This seed factor is important as it makes those vulnerable to suggestion all the more receptive.  This fellow in Maryland definitely had some issues with control, anger, and appropriateness.  I suspect the shooter likely had little pots of fermenting emotions stewing for the woman he harassed, the court that punished him, and the paper that told the world about his transgression.  Yet he took action against the paper even though it was under different ownership and management.  Did he simply roll dice to pick a target for his ill-directed rage or was he helped in this by the constant demonization of media from the highest offices in the land and elsewhere? 

I suspect that there will be doubters out there about the relative fault of this rhetoric and tone.  Their arguments would likely be that we are thinking and aware beings that can tell the difference between what is real and what is false or hyperbole.  Really?   I would argue that these people do not know their own physical machine and its weaknesses.  Listen to the above sound track and ask yourself whether or not you want to immediately dive in the ocean.  It is just music after all.

Likewise, I recently went with a friend to see the second Sicario film and was amazed at how much the music plays a role in the suspense.  It was almost a character in the film which makes sense as the score was modeled after what worked in the Jaws.   Listen to the theme of the first Sicario film above and I suspect that you will feel tension and suspense.  In fact, low frequency sounds and other sonic devices are often used to build suspense in movies.  If this can be done with simple sounds, why would anyone doubt it can be done with words?  This is particularly true when consultants like the late-firm Cambridge Analytica and their psych-op tactics are employed.

The problem that I face in writing this piece is the challenge we all face.  We start talking about this troubling phenomenon and then get distracted by the resulting extremes.  We find ourselves horrified by the guys who shoot, the coward who sucker punches, and those who aggressively profile fellow Americans of color at pools, parks, and on campaign trails.  These are all terrible and reprehensible, but this piece started with the idea of someone positively responding to an illogical and morally sketchy request.  We need to go back there.

During this last election something like a third of our electorate responded positively to the illogical and immoral by voting for Trump.  They bowed to their triggered base instincts (e.g., bigotry, religious beliefs, greed, misogyny, or economic fear) and said: Yes.  More importantly, these folks still seem to support this worst-ever president and those of similar ilk in spite of abundant evidence that this administration's policies are damaging this country and most of its people economically, socially, and environmentally.

There are certainly a lot of excuses for the initial vote and subsequent support of Trump and his cronies such as the Russian meddling, Fox News, the low-frequency drone of alt-right media, and the ramblings of various pulpit-poodles better suited for work on used car lots or in door-to-door sales than as shining moral beacons, but most who lived through the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s either let it pass them by or dialed it back when age and reason returned or more serious consequences loomed like disease and death from AIDS (i.e., logic and reason conquered lust).  And the sexual revolution was similarly pushed along by a myriad of media and marketing forces including drive-in theater screens filled with Messrs. Bond and Flint and even cigarette ads that linked smoking with sex and iconic posters of Farrah Fawcett with the word "sex" supposedly hidden in her hair style (above).  My point being that then most, including those who asked offensively or answered positively, self-corrected, but now not so much.

"There are many farmers, including Hansen, who work closely enough with lawmakers to see these bills for what they are: messy, yes, but not designed to hurt farmers, and with lots and lots of money and exemptions built right in to ensure that farmers aren’t unnecessarily hurt. Trump found these specific, fear-stoking issues that have been buzzing in farm communities and placed himself in their firm opposition." In Here are Five Issues that Cause Farmers to Vote for Trump 
This lack of corrective response strikes me as strange.  Why would an island in the Chesapeake increasingly impacted by climate change vote for and then still support someone that completely ignores the phenomenon of their destruction?  Where are the parades of soy bean farmer tractors in DC as this sector is about to be crushed by lost markets and low prices brought on by Trump's trade tantrums?   Why are failing Wisconsin family dairy farmers not dumping milk on the White House lawn as Trump's tariffs similarly impact their existence?   And why-oh-why would those working for Harley-Davidson and on the verge of losing their jobs because of Trump's actions still support him?  Continued support for Trump from these arenas is about as prudent as having unprotected intercourse with an individual employed by the adult film industry, but here we are.

And now to attempt to close or perhaps provide a chapter end to this rant.  I am often fascinated by words and in this case the differences between rationale and rational come to mind.  Those who followed their baser instincts and readily hopped in bed when folks wore flowers in their hair share something with Trump voters: An abundance of rationale and a relative absence of rational thinking.  Certainly we have seen the MAGA-gaga reach for the protective shields of Fundamental Christianity, family values, or pro-life leanings as rationale when challenged about their support, but these seem little different in weight and intent than the I-was-drunk, it-felt-so-good, or everyone-was-doing-it rationale offered by their free-love counterparts.  And none of this truly speaks to the logical or ethical thinking that went into either decision.

Much of this makes me weary.  I am tired, for instance, of this idea of value voters and the mad dash to fill speeches with words to essentially trick the electorate into voting for candidates who will make their lives worse rather than better.  It reminds me of the practice of coating feathers with molasses to get cattle to consume the otherwise unpalatable so they can be fat for slaughter.  And right now our country has a mouthful.
"Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty and singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears and servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."  Thomas Jefferson to his nephew Peter Carr.
This talk too from the religious-right raining rationale on their adoring followers while arguing for a return to the bosom of our Founding Fathers adds to this exhausting and intellectually crushing burden.   These dubious scholars seem to imply that since they read the Bible and the Founding Fathers read the Bible that they walk in lock-step with those who fomented and then led the American Revolution.  Bible-thumpers are the true patriots they claim.  That is pure piffle.  Most of our core Founding Fathers (i.e., Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Wilson) embraced a belief system that could be broadly characterized as theistic rationalism.  Theirs was not a blind and obedient acceptance of the Bible as written, but a life philosophy that accepted the existence of a deity, looked to the Bible mainly for moral lessons, and applied the screen of reason to the entire document as they did their lives. 

Our Founding Fathers and most survivors of the sexual revolution elected to function in the realm of the rational rather than be respectively mired in the quicksand of selectively-applied biblical rationale or trapped in a potentially harmful advertising paradigm.  It is important to note here that there was a reason the 18th century, here and in Europe, was called the Age of Enlightenment (or Reason) rather than the Inquisition Nostalgia Tour  or Salem Witch Jamboree II.  I will end here by saying that we are at a critical point right now where we can return to the intent of the Founding Fathers and collectively embrace reason in governance or by rejecting that notion we essentially say "yes" to some form of the latter two from the previous sentence.  This is your choice and it is a critical one.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Of Swimming Pools and the Danger of Blank Check Christianity

By Bob Ferris

When I was a child we would go to the zoo as in: All the animals in the zoo are jumping up and down for you...  Since I lived in the Bay Area the go-to zoo was San Francisco's and we knew we were nearing the zoo when we would start to see the massive1000 foot-long, 6.5 million-gallon Fleishhacker Pool--the world's largest heated swimming pool.  By the time my parents were installing our backyard pool the Fleishhacker pool originally built in 1925 was in the process closing.  Our pool was probably 30,000 gallons or so and I never confused the two pools.  I recall this monumental difference as I digest the below CRTV video by Phil Robertson praising Trump and polishing the president's much tarnished image with a cloth well-dipped in "we all sin" sauce. 
Phil Robertson on CRTV here.
I was raised in the Episcopal Church and sat through far, far too many sermons when I should have been fishing or playing, but I cannot remember one that basically said that Christians had a blank check in terms of sinning, particularly serial sinning.  Certainly there was talk about the related topics of atonement, redemption, and salvation but these seemed more like bridges you crossed leaving behind a sin-filled life not merry-go-rounds where you grabbed the brass ring of forgiveness each time around.  This seems to be the biblical lesson of Lot's wife who looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah and was turned into a pillar of salt.  This tale and imagery does not argue that there is a soft landing pad when you back-slip.

"But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death." Revelations 21:8 King James Version (see other versions here)
But here is Phil Robertson, duct-taped Bible in hand, seemingly clinging to the idea that Jesus died for our sins which means our debt is paid regardless of how much we owe.  According to him and others who think like him, we (Christians) are essentially redeemed and it would seem indemnified at the same time.  I am no expert, but this strikes me as a poor read of the Bible as it has much to say about sinning in general and lying specifically (see above and here).  Nothing in the passages I have seen and read appears to imply that being saved and then sinning a lot is cool no matter what Kim Davis or Mike Huckabee might say.

"There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil, A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers." Proverbs 6:16-19 (English Standard version)
I think that forgiveness is wonderful and redemption reasonable but both lose their relative societal benefit if the backyard-pool sinner is deemed equivalent to the full-fledged Fleishhackers like Trump.  In this regard, I cannot help but think of Trump as someone with a Ten Commandment's Bingo card before him madly pounding his mission-accomplished stamp on each box as achieved and some achieved again.  I find it very hard to reconcile adherence to this moral code with embracing someone who treats it with so little regard.  I can see, however, the individual appeal of this blank check Christianity and bottomless redemption.  I suspect there is great comfort in the idea of using a person who may or may not have lived two thousand years ago as a whipping boy for your own modern transgressions, but what is the impact of this if broadly adopted by society?  

My wife and I have no children but have ample nieces and nephews.  I cannot imagine trying to teach a child morals and ethics against the backdrop created by Trump and his enablers.  How do you tell a child that it is wrong to lie when the president has publicly told some 3000 lies?  How can you talk about the sanctity of marriage and the benefits of faithfulness when the president is a serial adulterer who has been married three times?  And how can you talk about the concept of Christian charity when the president used his charity for his own benefit, causes families to be separated, and then lies about both?  And where exactly are the good works that demonstrate that he and others who have the "more money" and "nicer boats" are attempting to atone for their past sins? 

I have little hope that this piece will strike a chord with Phil and others of his ilk.  They will probably never see this and even if they did my sense is that it would only force them deeper into the comforting bosom of the alt-media opiate they ingest daily.   They hide in the engulfing tones that tell them that up is down, that Trump never lies, and their current pain is the result of Democrats even though Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress for the past four years and all branches for the last two.  

This is nature of blind faith: It does not depend on facts or logic.    My hope is that we do find our way home again to a place where facts and logic prevail and presidents at least try to act as exemplars in stories told to children rather than moral aberrations needing to be cloaked in caveats and disclaimers.