Friday, June 29, 2012

The Irony of Progress

Windmills on Lake Erie, 2012

Progress is so hard to predict. It can destroy you if you don’t see it coming. And, as the wind turbines lining the southwestern shore of Lake Erie demonstrate, you can get in trouble if you get too far ahead of it.
It’s funny how something as seemingly benign as wind power can get people so riled up. For some, wind powered energy generation is an ultimate green technology. It’s clean, sustainable and leaves no adverse legacies. Better yet, the technology’s been proven and is in use in all kinds of terrains around the world.
For opponents, wind powered energy generation is thought to be ugly, noisy and, at least according to the people who live on Cape Cod who’ve been trying to keep wind turbines out of Nantucket Sound, harmful to fish and foul.
The real problem with wind powered energy generation, of course, is not any of the above. It’s that we’re so early in the process of accepting it in the United States that we’ve jiggered the energy system to make it exceedingly expensive.
Wind power is like desalinating salt water. Desalinization technology has been around for some time. Cruise ships, for example, use it all the time. Yet millions of people around the world who live adjacent to oceans and other large saltwater bodies go without dependably water for household and agricultural use because the cost of desalinization is so much higher than the cost of importing water.
I was very impressed to see a line of wind turbines along the shore of Lake Erie during my recent visit to Buffalo, New York. I threaded my way through old industrial neighborhoods (and a terrific new network of lakefront public parks) to get close enough to photograph the turbines.
The first irony of these turbines is that they’re located on the former site of a Bethlehem Steel mill, once the 4th biggest steel mill in the world. Big Steel is long gone, made too costly by smaller, cheaper and more flexible steel production technology. In its place along the Buffalo waterfront is one of the latest forms of energy generation that’s actually just a new twist on a concept older than steel itself.
The second irony of this elegant array of windmills is that they’re apparently in danger of being turned off. On the day I visited they turned gently in the steady wind that blew off Lake Erie. The made no discernable noise.  Even lazy seagulls flew among them without being struck by the giant white vanes.
This installation was the pet project of a former New York Power Authority president. After he left office nobody has stepped up to continue championing this billion-dollar project. The Buffalo News reported, “The ...wind turbines lining a stretch of Lake Erie...could have generated about 500 megawatts of clean energy, enough to supply about 130,000 homes.” [That’s almost two-thirds of the Buffalo Metropolitan region’s households.] “It would have reduced pollution by reducing the state’s reliance on power plants that run on fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas.”
But it turns out the electricity generated by these turbines costs three times what it costs to generate electricity in plants fueled by coal and gas. I’m willing to bet that if you factored in the health, safety and environmental costs of fossil fuel plants there’d be greater parity between wind and fossil fuels.
But that’s not how the bean counters and the politicians in coal-producing states look at it. So it’s anyone’s guess whether wind power will be taken seriously in this generation. 
In the meantime, I hope the New York Power Authority doesn’t turn off these turbines. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why Morning is Wasted on Sleep

Pavilion, New York, Panorama, 2012

I realize this photo may be a little tough to see. It’s quite wide. Click on it and you should get a larger image.
This photo reminds me why early mornings are so often wasted on sleep. I can’t claim to be all high and mighty about this. For the last six months my body clock has favored late nights over early mornings. I was up early enough to observe this scene only because I wanted to get a jump on a twelve-hour drive.
It was dark when I left the western suburbs of Buffalo, New York. By the time I passed through the little hamlet of Pavilion, the sun was peeking over the horizon in earnest. Pavilion, by the way, is not far from the town of LeRoy, New York, which the eminent artist Walt Taylor claims as his birthplace. I cannot verify this. There were no historic markers or roadside rest stops claiming Taylor as one of LeRoy’s own.
Normally I’d be trying to make time on the road. But as the sun peeked over the hills I couldn’t help but notice the shadows in the center of this photo. I was so distracted thinking about those shadows that I was a half-mile down the road before it occurred to me that I should go back and photograph what I’d seen.
The thing about making such decisions that early in the morning is that the light changes rapidly at sunrise. It only took me a few minutes to find a place to turn around and go back to where I could park, stand on the seat of a tractor parked on the side of the road (to get a little elevation) and take the pictures that were stitched together to make this panorama. But already the story of the scene was changing. The light was becoming less golden. The clouds in the distance were passing by quickly.
You have to admit it’s a pretty gorgeous morning. This is beautiful country. The clouds are worthy of El Greco. The shadows recall the hill towns of Tuscany. The sounds I heard as I took these pictures were birds singing and frogs croaking among the reeds in a pond that is just out of sight.
If I thought I’d see sights like this even one morning out of seven, I’d get up earlier.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Pleasures of the Journey

South of Cohocton, New York, 2012

One of the pleasures of traveling by car is the opportunity to occasionally travel at a leisurely pace. There are no panicked schedules or strip searches at airport security or worries about missing flight connections. For me, the opportunity to know where you’re headed without having to worry too much about how exactly you’re going to get there or how long it’s going to take is a great freedom. Life is the journey, after all. The experience of getting to the destination can be just as important, engaging and satisfying as the destination.
On Friday I had a chance to drive from Virginia Beach up to western New York State. It’s a drive I’ve done many times. If I had to do it frequently I’d probably put my nose to the steering wheel and concentrate on just getting there. But on this occasion I had the luxury of time.
There are many ways you can get to western New York State from Virginia Beach. The good thing (and the bad thing) is that there’s no direct highway. Whichever way you do it requires winding your way through Virginia, sometimes West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and then New York. Other than dealing with the bridges and tunnels necessary to get out of my area and then the traffic around the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, most of the ride is through rural areas. You can take a western route through Pennsylvania and thread your way through one depressed mining or paper making town after another, or you can take an eastern route and skirt the western edge of Amish country as you follow the majestic Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg.
The population of Virginia Beach has exploded the last forty years. There’s very little that’s very old here and when something gets a little age on it someone invariably tears it down and builds something new on the land. It’s a little jarring, then, to travel for almost six hundred miles and see so many places haven’t changed much in the past almost fifty years I’ve been making this trip.
The good news is that the roads are much better and safer. But many of the little villages you pass through—places like Mansfield, Avoca, Leicester, Selinsgrove and Bath—have just gotten older. Some have held their own over the years. But others show noting to the passing motorist than the ravages of age, wear and tear and progress that moved away.
When most people think of New York State the images that come to mind first are invariably the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the great bridges over the Hudson and East Rivers and rust belt cities like Rochester and Buffalo. They would be surprised, however,  at the green mountains and rolling hills of the Southern Tier of New York State. It’s a region of great natural beauty, at times simply pastoral and at others nothing less than breathtaking.
For much of my drive on Friday the sky was dull and overcast. There were several strong rainstorms along the upper Susquehanna. But when I crossed the peak of a range of mountains just north of Avoca, New York, the sky turned bright blue and clear. A few clouds dotted an otherwise clear blue sky. Off to the right of the highway, just south of Cohocton, lines of wind turbines sit atop ridges like giant white herons, their blades turning languidly. There are no doubt people who believe the wind turbines are ugly. But for me they are elegant kinetic sculptures.
Most of the road on this trip consists of divided highways. But there’s a stretch between Mount Morris, New York, and Batavia where it’s just two lanes. It’s not a long stretch. But because it’s farm country, there’s a good chance you’ll get stuck at some point behind a slow moving tractor or combine.
In my case, it was a tractor-trailer whose driver seemed to be determined to drive at least fifteen miles below the speed limit. I was a little irritated that the driver wouldn’t pick up the pace. But I realized later that if he’d done that I probably wouldn’t have noticed this simple Greek Revival home in East Bethany, New York.
Life is the journey. Sometimes it takes a big truck driving slowly to remind you of that.
Greek Revival in East Bethany, New York, 2012

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Survivor

Delta, 2011

Some readers will remember my battle last summer to protect the vegetable garden from the local varmints.      
The summer before last the problem was birds. So last year I threw a net over most of the vegetable garden. That took care of the birds. But the black snakes kept getting tangled in the net. And the net did nothing to hold back the turtles that ate everything they could reach (and some things I think they had to get stacked up on each others’ shells to reach, all Yertle the Turtle-like).
This year it’s been rabbits. It seems several litters were born in the woods in our yard this spring. They’re cute little critters. They’re out in the front yard all the time, munching on the clover in the lawn. I’m okay with them. It’s the ones in the back that are dining on my garden that are getting on my nerves.
I expected them to eat the beans. That’s why I planted so many, staggering the planting so that there’d be beans for both man and rabbit throughout the summer. They finished off the beans and the bean plants in about two days. Completely gone.
Then they moved on to the green pepper plants. Green pepper plants? They’d never bothered the pepper plants before. But this year the rabbits cut them right down to the ground.
That was a surprise. But what really surprised me was the way the rabbits headed into the squash. I’ve never known them to eat squash. But each morning when I go out to see how the squash are coming along I find that the rabbits have eaten many of the squash buds, as well.
So far, the rabbits have left the cucumbers and tomatoes alone. But that’s where my old fiend “Delta,” shown above, and her family come into this story. Regular readers will recall how the turtles so decimated my vegetable garden last summer that I took to painting marks with fingernail polish on their shells to keep them all straight.
Delta returned late this spring. I don’t know where she winters. But as soon as the cucumbers and tomatoes starting budding Delta was right there on the garden floor, waiting to see what she could reach.
Delta must like it here. I don’t know where Gamma and Lambda, two of her compatriots from last summer, have gone. No doubt they’re just hiding out in better places. Delta, though, likes it so much so that we’ve seen her twice in the last week laying eggs in the most improbable places.
Two days ago I took Delta out of the garden, where she was patiently waiting for some cucumbers to get heavy enough to dip down into her range, and carried her to some very nice woods over a block away.
It took her two days, but Delta was back hiding under the cucumber leaves again this morning. If there is any question of which animals will survive the apocalypse, I think I have a nomination!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Really. You just have to be open to them.

A Chance Dining Room View, 2012

Things worth photographing are everywhere. Even if I have momentary bouts of photographer’s block and say I don’t see anything to photograph, it’s because of my attitude, not the absence of opportunity. Some people feel they’ve got to get in the car or hop on a plane and go somewhere else to find something worth photographing. That’s nice, and who doesn’t like to explore new places? But I tell you; opportunities are all around is if you just make yourself open to them. (Gosh, now there’s a life lesson, isn’t it?)
Sometimes even I get surprised at where these little moments of opportunity occur. A chance notice of the way the light was casting shadows on the wall of the shower prompted me to look at all the ways the light comes into our house in the morning. Who’d have thought there were so many ways to notice the light in just one ten-minute period? Here are just a few.
I was on the phone the other afternoon, standing in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room. I happened to glance into the dining room just quickly enough to catch the reflection of the twinkle of the river across the street from our house on these glass ornaments hanging from the chandelier.
There’s nothing magical about this moment. It’s just one of millions that occur around us every day. They reveal themselves as the sun rises and sets and the earth turns and things get in the way, casting shadows. No two of these moments are quite the same. You might see something in one moment that you never see again in your whole life. And if you don’t believe that, know that I didn’t have a camera handy when I first noticed this scene. By the time the phone call ended and I could grab the closest camera, the glittering sparkles that had initially caught my eye were gone.
I might never see that exact view again. But you can be sure I’ll be looking for it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bon Mots from the 2012 Graduation Circuit

Graduation Season, 2003

It’s the time of year when newspapers start printing excerpts from college graduation speeches. I always enjoy reading these remarks.
Back in 1974, the speaker admonished my class to, above all else, “Know yourself.” I don’t know if anyone really paid attention to that. At the time I thought that was a most lame and abstract bit of counsel. We wanted to know how to get jobs. We were ready to set the world on fire. Did I mention that we wanted jobs?
Speaking at a graduation has got to be a thankless task. It’s an honor and a real feather in your cap, I suppose, if you’re asked to speak at a prestigious school. But even there you’d probably be a fool to think that as many as half of the graduates in the audience are paying attention to you. At my daughter’s graduation from The College of William & Mary the speakers in that one ceremony alone included Congressman John Lewis, Britain’s Lady Margaret Thatcher and Queen Noor of Jordan. But I’ll bet only half of those students can remember what any of those speaker said. (And I’ll give them that because they’re W&M kids, who generally pay attention to things.)
Beside, new graduates are like hothouse flowers being launched into the fresh air. What do they know? It took me an embarrassing number of years to realize that the recommendation to “Know yourself” was one of the best recommendations anyone ever gave me. I wish I’d realized that then.  
Yesterday’s New York Times featured a collection of comments from 2012 commencement speakers. From Mayor Cory Booker, of Newark:
“My dad would always teased me: ‘Boy, don’t you walk around here like you hit a triple. You were born on third base, boy.’”
From former Secretary of State Robert Gates:
“The obligations of citizenship in any democracy are considerable…Consider spending at least part of your life in public service.”
From Condoleeza Rice:
“At those times when you’re absolutely sure you’re right, talk with someone who disagrees. And if you constantly find yourself in the company of those who say ‘Amen’ to everything you say, find new company.”
From actor Peter Dinklage:
“My parents didn’t have much money, but they struggled to send me to the best schools. And one of the most important things they did for me—and graduates, maybe you don’t want to hear this—is that once I graduated I was on my own. Financially, it was my turn…But this made me very hungry. Literally, I couldn’t be lazy.”
And again from Mayor Booker:
“I believe in my heart of hearts that it is better to have your ship sunk at sea than have it rot in the harbor.”
And from Mr. Dinklage:
“Don’t bother telling the world you are ready. Show it. Do it. What did Beckett say? ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fall better.’”
There are wise words in those remarks. I hope graduates are more mature than I was at that age.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Nature Left to Her Own Devices

Come into the Garden, 2012

Mother Nature requires continuous “handling” at our house I can’t say “taming” because nature moved in mysterious ways when you’re not looking, slipping up on you in expected ways and places.
Gardening also teaches patience. Some people can afford to have fully mature gardens planted from scratch. I can’t, so I have to plant things small and wait for them to fill out. You can’t rush it.
When we moved to our current home here about fourteen years ago I lined a wooded path through the woods beside the house with hydrangeas. There’s a lot of competition for ground moisture in that area from the trees. It was touch and go some years as to whether the hydrangeas would survive the summer heat or the weight of heavy winter snow. This year most of the hydrangeas are doing pretty well.
The problem is that they’re doing so well now that getting down the path is like navigating a green and blue gauntlet. . Another year of growth will completely obscure the path. Mother Nature’s paying me back for taking such good care of these bushes. Can you say pruning shears?
The Hydrangea Alley, 2012

Meanwhile, out in front of the house I planted English boxwoods on either side of the sidewalk leading to the front door. They’re very common in the Mid-Atlantic, despite being expensive, slow growing and emitting an occasional cat urine smell during the summer. I started with small, affordable plants, which once planted looked like little soldiers in a row. (This is a real no-no in landscape design).  But like the hydrangeas, the boxwoods eventually grew.
In recent years, though, it’s as if their growth has stopped. It occurred to me that the boxwoods might be too densely packed. So I decided to remove every other boxwood from the hedges along the sidewalk. I was giddy with excitement at the idea that I’d have a dozen or so “new” bushes to use in other parts of the yard.
That was until I saw the result of my so-called smart thinning.
Nature's Afro, 2012

Boxwoods planted too closely together not only don’t thrive, but also leaf out only in the places where they’re exposed to the sun. So while I did indeed gain fourteen new boxwoods to use in other places, those fourteen boxwoods and the twenty I left behind in the original hedges all look like nature’s version of an Afro haircut. They’re hilariously skinny with leaves only on two sides and the top, as if someone took a plant and cut it into slices.
But what the heck! The vegetable garden now has an almost complete surrounding hedge of skinny boxwoods. They’ll be a good windbreak in the winter.
It’s true, though. All of the boxwoods look skimpy right now. If we were to have people over for a party they’d wonder why the heck we’d sliced the sides off the plants.  
I’d just tell them, “Have patience, friends. A few years from now you’ll wonder how that famous tightwad Bonney ever sprung for so many expensive bushes.”
Skinnied Up, 2012