Thursday, June 25, 2015

This July 4th Kiss a Viking

By Bob Ferris

George Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze 

Carlene and I recently visited the Field Museum in Chicago and had an opportunity to tour the Viking exhibit.  It was relatively small and simple but to me it was meaningful.  Seeing the remains of a legendary Ulfberht sword and looking at the group's cosmological evolution as well as items from everyday life clicked for me.

The best swords during the Viking era were made by Ulfberht.  The swords we so good that they were even counterfeited.  

I mention this as we come into the time of year when we celebrate the Declaration of Independence because we should recognize that this founding document might not have come into existence had the Magna Carta not been sealed by King John 800 years ago at the insistence of 25 barons at Runnymede and their allies.  Most of those barons were Normans which meant they came from Normandy in France.  They were essentially “men from the north” or Vikings and the Magna Carta reflects their Viking philosophies and approach to life (see below).

Excerpt from Leadership Principles of the Vikings - What You Need to Explore, Conquer, and Succeed as a Leader in Dark Ages by Jan Kallberg
Now 561 years between events seems pretty far removed and therefore the connections likely remote. That is unless you consider that when the Magna Carta toured the US in the 1930s and 1940s—when Britain was reaching across the pond for support during World War II—the travelling exhibit always was accompanied by a display of George Washington’s genealogy  which showed that he was related to 24 of the 25 barons who played a dangerous game of political chicken with King John, Pope Innocent III and Prince Louis of France.  George was a direct descendant of up to 14 of them.  As these knights were mainly Norman, George Washington was not only a Founding Father but by descent our first Viking leader too.

Normans on Bayeux Tapestry By Dan Koehl (Tapestry de Bayeux) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It is no surprise given this background that some of the principles expressed in the Magna Carta as well as earlier in the Textus Roffensis  penned during William the Conqueror’s time are embodied in the Declaration and also the US Constitution.  It is not hard to see parallels between the Barons and Congress or regular voting and the idea of a representative form of governance.  Duke William's section in the Textus Roffensis about trial by combat, ordeal and oath is certainly a precursor to our legal system and the rules regarding who should own breast plates and pikes as well as how many sounds familiar in a Second Amendment sense.

A modern representation of Robert de Vere, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Magna Carta Baron (from here).
As my siblings and I share a lineage with George Washington through the Reverend Lawrence Washington of Sulgrave Manor via my mother’s Robb connections, we can claim direct descent from seven of the Magna Carta barons with an additional surety knight coming from my father’s side and the Ramsays. This Ramsay connection comes in the form of a Norman knight named Robert de Vere who was the 3rd Earl of Oxford.  Robert is an interesting fellow in that he is frequently and wrongly associated with the legend of Robin Hood (1,2).  He like all of the rebellious lords lost their lands and titles when King John had second thoughts about being below rather than above the law and appealed to Pope Innocent III. The Pope agreed annulling the agreement through a Papal Bull and he also excommunicated the barons adding insult to the injuries they had already suffered for holding dear to their Viking philosophies.

Robert de Vere's grave site.
Even after de Vere regained his titles and lands he paid a price by way of penance as he was obligated by a very young King Henry III to go on the ill-fated 5th Crusade to the Holy Lands.  This head of what was essentially the House of Truth—the de Vere family motto being vero nihil verius or nothing truer than truth—was wounded in Egypt and died soon thereafter in Italy circa 1221.  He was buried at Hatfield Broad Oak Priory under an effigy of a figure in chainmail with crossed legs drawing a sword and holding a shield that clearly shows the de Vere star from the coat of arms (see above).

The Listing of Magna Carta Barons in my tree along with three generations of names many with Norman (Viking) roots.
Again this seems far removed and abstract.  What impact could a group of 13th century knights have on our broader family 800 years later and many thousand miles away?  As I look at our collective family tree, it looks mainly like a mixture of English, Scottish and French ancestors like many families in the US.  But then the deeper scratching begins and we find that the Settles line started with a Norman knight called Roger le Poitvan who settled on the River Ribble.

Stained glass rendering of Jeffrey Ferris in First Congregational Church of Greenwich, CT.
There is considerable debate about the Ferris name before Jeffrey Ferris (above) co-founded Greenwich, Connecticut in 1639. Family legend claims that our family started out as de Ferrer or Ferrier coming over from Normandy with William and fighting at the Battle of Hastings.  Many in the family including George Washington Gale Ferris (inventor of the Ferris Wheel) believed we were descended from Henri de Ferrers who was Duke William’s Master of Horse, but others dispute that claim or point to Ferris as the non-noble side of the de Ferrer lineage.  So we could be Norman or not. That said, we are linked back to that noble Norman family through Caroline Canby Ramsay (known to most as Nana) who counted Daniel Ferree and Marie de la Warenbuer Ferree as her ancestors.  The Ferrees were Norman and likely associated with Robert Ferre des Ferris though Jean (Fuehre) LaVerre.  Whew.

Dalhousie Castle Cockpen Parish Midlothian County Scotland stands on lands thought to have been first acquired by Sir Symon de Ramesie in 1140 from King David I.
We think of our Morris and Ramsay roots as English and Scottish respectively but these names also came across the English Channel with William.  The Morris name could have Norman or Welsh origins the former being the Anglicized version of Maurice.  And the Ramsays while certainly residing in Scotland for nearly 1000 years began that long occupation with the northward travels of Sir Symon de Ramesie (Simon of Ramsay) a Norman knight who likely accompanied David I when he claimed the Kingdom of Scotland.

Those who visit the travelling Viking exhibit will see this Viking weaving sword.  The runic inscription reads: "Think of me, I think of you. Love me, I love you."  The Vikings were not all axes, shields and dragon-headed boats. They have left much in the way of  legacy including an approach to governance that if maintained in their fashion will last and serve for generations.  
So this 4th of July while you are celebrating the early roots of this country you might just consider the often overlooked but inescapable contributions of the Vikings.  You might also take a moment to understand that the Vikings among us—both those of blood and those of spirit—should be rumbling and beating their shields with swords and axes because the ruling class in the form of billionaires and the politicians they control have become King John-like and forgotten that they need to rule in the “Viking way” with our views in mind and with full consideration of the benefit to all.  Perhaps it is fair time to remind them of that.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Holey Climate Denial

By Bob Ferris

I wish I could say that I was flabbergasted by comments coming out of the climate denier and
conservative Catholic camps in response to the Pope’s encyclical on planetary stewardship and climate change, but I am not.  Not at all.  Disappointed, disgusted, and appalled but not flabbergasted.

There are many examples, but two stand out in my mind.  The first has to do with the Heartland Institute (see CNN story) and their opposition to the Pope’s message.  A big part of me wants to say: Shame on CNN for doing this story.  What is really newsworthy about an industry front group funded by rich conservatives like the Koch brothers being opposed to the curtailment of fossil-fuel use and anti-greed messaging?  And on what planet does an “institute” headed by a leader without a college degree, which produces research that is so bad it is mainly self-published, and that has to hold its own climate summit because the “scientists” it supports and gives awards to are no longer invited to speak at legitimate forums serve as a valid and appropriate counter-point to the leader of church with 1.2 billion members worldwide?  What’s next: preschoolers commenting on nuclear physics?

I apologize (a little) for the above facetiousness.  My point being that the Heartland Institute is a textbook case of astroturfing which might fool the public some of the time as they have been trying with their Tea Party antics (see above), but should not fool CNN.
“He once said the carrying capacity of the earth is less than one billion; considering the earth currently holds more than seven billion people, this would mean he favors the reduction of the vast majority of mankind.”  Church Militant June 2015 
The second attack example on the Pope’s message comes via criticism of his appointment of Dr. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber to a Vatican science panel.  Dr. Schellnhuber is world-renowned scientist who helped the Pope understand some of the implications of climate change.  He also has given talks regarding his concerns about what certain climate change scenarios will do to the carrying capacity of the planet (see here).  This is a far, far cry from implying that he would like to see 6 billion people disappear as stated above or more aggressively in the conservative blogger Breitbart’s post.

These are not the only examples of flim-flaming or fact twisting in this debate, but both make me think we are sometimes too kind to those we have characterized as “deniers.”  Denial is the act of declaring something untrue which strikes me as a different beast than declaring something true as untrue.  This latter undertaking moves much more towards the “lie” end of this spectrum and should be called out as such.  Those that participate in these deceptions need to spend a little less time with their "combat rosaries" and a lot more time examining their moral compasses as the Pope is pointing towards True North at this point.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Of the Pope, Oil and Snakes

By Bob Ferris

The garden of Eden with the fall of man by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the elder. 
I will start by saying that I am not religious in any way.  I was raised in the Episcopal Church but I always felt like an observer rather than a participant.  I spent more time finding fault than I did finding faith.  That said, I have been thinking a lot about religion of late because I recently attended my mother-in-laws’ very Catholic funeral, have been doing some research on my Huguenot ancestors (in particular Marie Ferree who was a remarkable woman), and like many am eagerly anticipating the official release of the Pope’s upcoming encyclical on the need for global environmental stewardship.  In all of this the latter seems the most important at present.

As a scientist I find that the leaked drafts of Pope Francis’ papal letter taken in combination with statements last fall about evolution and the “Big Bang” theory are interesting and welcome.  Though I am pleased with the pontiff’s pronouncements, I still do not find myself reaching for a rosary for to me the Bible remains man-made and allegorical rather than literal.  And religion is still something that I hope that we will outgrow (not the moral lessons but the blind belief).
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Genesis 15-17
I tend to live in the world of science and curiosity rather that belief, but if the Bible and an Abrahamic religion are your things then I would ask you to consider this:  What if the garden of Eden story was not only about spiritual "apples" and "snakes" but also about harmful resource use and those who promote it?  How, for instance, are clearcuts, overgrazing along with air and water pollution properly “dressing and keeping” the Eden that man was supposedly given?  And what if the fruit of the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" could be interpreted to be a metaphorical reference to fossil fuels sequestered underground during the process of making the earth and its climate ready to optimally support humans?

In this I have absolutely no trouble seeing the Koch brothers and their ilk as the "snakes" in this equation (and I really have nothing against snakes).  In this regard, I cannot think of a single secular or sacred measure (save some hypothetical Ayn Rand Selfishness Quotient) where the greed and deceit exhibited by these billionaires at the expense of everyone else would grant them anything resembling a favorable ranking.

So where does that leave us?  My sense is that we (i.e.,those with a tendency towards faith and those without) need to look for the key themes in the Pope's message where we can all agree and then move forward on those points of consensus.  I suspect that these points will be that science indicates that climate change is happening, our role in this phenomenon is significant, and that we need to act now to avoid the worst of the coming damage.  The Pope has already been preaching about the problems with "greed" and a "lust for power" (1,2,3) so this will likely play in his offering of solutions and laying of blame.  All but the most "scaly" among us should embrace these central themes.

This encyclical to be released tomorrow is not going to change how I feel about religion, but I will say that this Pope with his statements about the origin of the universe, evolution and climate as well as his forthrightness on the inherent dangers of greed and power has captured my attention.  And when we are faced with peril on the scale that we now face across the globe our philosophical differences are and should be secondary.  I therefore thank the Pope for stepping up to the plate on this and other important issues.  I look forward to seeing the final document.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Time Has Come Today

By Bob Ferris
The Chambers Brothers
Late last fall I was driving over a ridge top and emerged from some thick fog with my radio playing as background, but that changed when I heard the initial and iconic cowbell ticking of the Chambers Brothers’ classic “Time Has Come Today.”  And the volume goes up.

You have to understand that this was the full-metal jacket, 11-plus minute version not some watered down, AM-get-to-the-next-song-payola rendering.  And it rocked me on so many different levels just as it did nearly 50 years ago when I first heard its sharp and poignant strains.   So hold on (listen below).

The first resonate chord was the thrust of the song which basically keeps hitting on the theme that it is “time” to act.  Since that was the message then and certainly plays well today, the song becomes in a sense timeless (sorry.)  It was an anthem the 1960s and it needs to become one now.

Time has come to act on climate change.  Time has come to deal decisively with bigotry in all forms. Time has come for this nation to regain its place in the world as the brightest and best.  Time has come for broad scale political reforms and a recapturing of our democracy.  Time has come for fear, ignorance and selfishness to no longer be the forces that drive (and drag down) this country, the media and our policies. Time has come to reverse the inequity created over the last half century that is pushing many to working penury. Time has come for compassionate and visionary leadership. And the list goes on and on:Time…time…time…time.

Most of us who are not part of the problem or actively enabling it understand that decisive action needs to be taken and taken now (i.e., Time has come today).  It is no longer entertaining or even interesting that while 97% of the scientists embrace climate change and our role in that phenomenon that a large portion of the current presidential candidates are of a completely other mind on the topic. And while it is amusing to watch these candidates and other politicians dance around the Pope and his recent pronouncements on climate change, we also must see the tsunami-sized sucker punch represented by the Koch brothers and friends pledging nearly a billion to the 2016 election and also contemplating buying a newspaper or two.  While we should all think that being politically active is just fine, we should be opposed to the notion of a family or a relatively few overly enriched individuals buying our country simply so they can further control, pollute, and destroy it.  (Cuckoo indeed.)

The song pulses into frequent crescendos which should reflect our own growing dissatisfaction with the current conditions and emerging trends.  Our educational opportunities are being choked and under-funded.  Our air and water are being poisoned and acidified (1,2).  Our infrastructure (roads, bridges, water systems, etc.) and public amenities (parks and other public lands) are being neglected, degraded and often sold at a fraction of their real worth.  There is a quiet and profound anger in this song that we should also see in the mirror of our lives every morning.

Clearly there is a lot to this song and what it should represent to most Americans, but there is a relevant backstory here too.  Lester Chambers whose song has inspired us for nearly 50 years and been played in nearly 100 movies is broke and living on Social Security.  Not because he was profligate, but because he was used, abused, and discarded by the very system he helped make rich (see CNN story here).  In this we are all mostly like Lester Chambers in that we all contributed or are contributing to making this country great and rich yet our future prospects of living well are increasingly shortchanged by the very system and players that we enrich.  Time has come today to change this dynamic.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Bike Ride through the Myth of Sustainable Forestry in the PNW

By Bob Ferris

An iris near Albee Creek.
I remember a lecture by the late Raymond Dasmann at UCSC in the early 1980s where he described the phenomenon of humans switching from living within their ecosystems to depending upon resources from beyond the borders of their personal ranges.  In this Ray wanted us to understand how this fact influenced carrying capacity and also the dynamic between developed countries and those still living within or below the constraints of their own resources.  It was a lesson in sustainability and provided cautionary notes about the ramifications of continued growth and the folly of drawing on Earth’s “capital” rather than looking to live on our local or even our planetary “salary.”

Given our current set of circumstances I think about this lecture and topic often.  And one activity that has gained a lot of my attention in this regard is forestry.  I have on occasion quipped that burning wood is not a sustainable activity because I have yet to see a tree that grows as fast as it burns.  The same concept is true for wood and buildings as remodels, rot and redevelopment seem to use lumber at a much faster rate than it grows as well.  Harvesting a two hundred year-old redwood tree and then turning it into fences, shakes or decking that last for less than 30 illustrates this latter point.

Sustainability is often viewed as a three-legged stool supported equally by economics, environmental considerations and social equity or justice
I have raised these points in discussions about so-called “sustainable forestry” because my sense is that no action that uses materials faster than they are produced can truly be considered sustainable.  Moreover, when looking at the three-legged stool model of sustainability which includes consideration of economic, environmental and social factors in the calculus some of these other elements seem to fall short on these measures as well.

Many of these issues floated through my mind as Carlene and I visited the Albee Creek Campground near Weott in Northern California.  We hit the campground right before the Memorial Day rush this May and were told that it is usually pretty full for most of the summer months and that we lucked out finding a spot.  We had a great time there amongst the towering redwoods and rushing waters.

On our second day we hopped on our bikes and rode out to the Bull Creek Pioneer Memorial Cemetery which was a nice, easy pedal until the last stretch between the horse camp and the last resting place for a few dozen locals near the top of the grade.  (My hope about halfway up the last steep hill was that I would be just visiting rather than staying.)

The graveyard is quaint and populated with the few lucky enough to have lived in this area before it became a park.  The burial ground borders on being a folk art installation with many of the graves decorated with concrete deer, “gone fishing” signs and whirligigs.  In a word it is authentic.

The site also has an interpretive sign that tells the story of what killed the community.  For within this display is a paragraph that goes like this:
Redwood products fueled the local economy for nearly 100 years.  Early operators hand cut grapestakes (lower left) and other “Split stuff.”  The Bee Mill of the 1940’s (lower right) cleared the surrounding mountainsides of trees in less than 10 years.
The transition from the more ecosystem-based and sustainable economy to something more global clearly has some winners and losers in this case.  But I suspect this gloomy community eulogy does not appear too often in promotional materials issued by mill operators.  I would guess that externalized costs like roads, below cost timber sales, and the like would also be missing from these materials.  Certainly there have been big winners in these operations but taken in sum the economic leg of this stool seems equal parts hologram and substance.

After riding the three or so miles back to Albee Creek we continued our ride to enjoy the quiet and serenity of the groves that were saved in this public forest.  Monstrous trees abound as well as fallen giants and fields of rusty duff seasoned with undergrowth.  Walking in old growth drives home the point that trees harvested on 80 or even 100 year rotations can never provide this type of structure or habitat value.

Towards the end of our outward leg as we pedaled past Calf Creek and then Cow Creek we came to the Bull Creek Flats grove and walked that circle trail until an unmarked a path to the right called to me.  Dodging poison oak on both sides we emerged on a sand and cobble beach at the confluence of Bull Creek and the South Fork of the Eel River (above).  The Eel River brings me to the topic of fish and forestry as I caught my first trout on the Eel more than 50 years ago.

So how can an industry that degrades the performance of a more sustainable system such as an anadromous fishery or a carbon storage mechanism consider itself sustainable?  In looking at the Pacific Northwest (PNW) there is no doubt that forestry practices have significantly impacted salmon and steelhead populations (1,2,3).  The same is true for timber impacts on spotted owls and marbled murrelets.  And as coastal forests in the PNW represent huge carbon sinks which are more efficient at sequestering carbon when they are on the mature side, it is hard to see where timber harvesting in this Cascadian bio-region qualifies as anything approaching environmentally benign.  Thus the environmental leg of this sustainability stool is being chewed through by the pesky beaver of reality.

Additionally how can an industry be considered sustainable if it makes people ill or shortens their lives?  Many forestry operations across the PNW use chemical cocktails that are increasingly suspected of causing illnesses in rural populations (1,2) as well as impacting wildlife populations (1,2).  These molecular soups—often including the recently-reclassified Monsanto product RoundUp—are poorly tested individually and absolutely not tested in combinations.  So combined with the blowing up of local economies this health impact seems to make the social leg of this sustainability stool a little shaky.

So when looked at in total (economically, environmentally and socially) it is really hard to think of this industry as sustainable in any real or material sense.  The labeling works as a campaign device for continuance and a rationalization for more clearcuts and roads, but at some point you really have to jump to the conclusion that those promoting the use of the word in this context do not understand its meaning or intent.  It is truly an “Inigo Montoya” moment.

So now as we look at forest plan modifications (1,2), proposals for increased logging, continued herbicide use and road building we need to remember the lessons taught us by these big trees, the missing fish and this lost community.  In all of this we need to realistically look at the timber industry for what it is not what the industry tells us it is or what it once was.  Maybe it is time to take a more visionary turn towards maximizing carbon storage and focusing on restoring and protecting a resource that renews itself in a handful of years (i.e., salmon) versus a declining industry that takes nearly a century to transition from seed to sawmill?   Just a thought.