I went down to Rio last week, the first time I have been there in twenty-five years. It is still a beautiful place and I will write up notes about my very busy schedule there later. For now I am posting a few of the pretty pictures. The one up top is a very big picture. I didn’t shrink it down, so you can look at the source (http://johnsonmatel.com/2011/July/Rio2/Rio_de_Janiero_foggy_view.JPG) and see it in more detail.
I took the picture from one of the favelas, or slums. This one had recently been the scene of terrible violence and literally wars between the authorities and drug dealers. Now it is pacified. Below is a mural drawn of the favela – or maybe the community they would like it to be. If you look at the bottom you see a gray spot. That is where a bullet hit during the late unpleasantness.
You can see the changes in the news, in advertisements and in the behavior of people. Labor, even semi-skilled labor, has become more and more expensive. As a result, individuals and firms are quickly adapting, substituting machines for people or changing processes in order to avoid hand labor altogether.
The TV news a couple days ago featured an article about the quickly rising wages of “empregadas” or maids. Let me explain that household help in Brazil was not something only for the rich, as it tends to be in the U.S. In Brazil, when labor was cheap, middle class people had maids, gardeners etc. Anyway, I saw stories about this on the news and read about it in the papers. Some empregadas were happily reporting that they had five or six offers for their services and could decide among them, a good news story for empregadas, but maybe not sustainable.
Brazilian houses tended not to have the labor saving devices found in American homes. For example, the USG has put me in a very nice home. It has a built in grill and many other luxury features (you can see in the picture up top). But it doesn’t have a dishwasher. Nobody invests in labor saving devices when labor doesn’t need to be saved. Or more to the point, there are two types of dishwashers; one is mechanical.
Things have changed. There are lots of advertisements for dishwashers of the mechanical variety. On the farm show “Globo Rural” there are more and more stories about agricultural equipment, even on small holdings. This morning featured a story about a small holder in a poor region of the Northeast who found it cheaper to rent a combine than to hire his usual team of farm workers.
This is what happened in America generations ago. Brazil is following the pattern.
I had a pleasant Sunday w/o any labor. I went running down near the lake before the sun got high enough in the sky to burn my pale skin, came home and planted my garden and then spent the afternoon sitting in the yard in the shade and reading my “Veja” Magazine. I have a kind of history. When I was nineteen and knew nothing about the world, I was impressed by one of my co-workers at the cement plant who seemed to know lots of things. He said he just read “Time” every week. So I started to do that, sitting in my backyard in Milwaukee in the cool of the early mornings. Eventually, I learned enough to pass the Foreign Service exam.
You can see my reading spot in the second photo. If you have shade, Coke-zero and something to read, you are set. About the garden, you can see it behind the chair. I am not sure what to do. I planted my flower seeds, but who knows what the seasons do around here? There is no winter in the sense of getting cold and it is certainly warm enough for the seeds to grow, but we are in the dry season. I figure if I keep the dirt moist, I will get something. Of course, how long will a normally annual plant keep on growing if there is no frost to kill it off?
Above is a tree in my yard. I don’t know enough about tropical trees to identify it. Before I moved in the yard was overgrown. The gardeners cut back all the bushes and trees, including this one. It looked like it was dead when I moved in a couple weeks ago. Now it is growing back from the stumps. The gardener says that it will be completely grown out again in a short time. It looks like it is starting. Things grow really fast around here.
One of the surfers told me that the windy season is just starting now. The surfers would be out when the wind was blowing. The wind follows the lake and the peninsula near my house seems to be the one of the focal points. In any case, as you can see in the pictures it attracts surfers.
Above shows the sails close up. They pump some air into them and so they are not only like kites. The air gives makes them a little easier to sail and – a key characteristic – it makes them float. This is a key to happiness when you fly kits above water.
Another guy told me that it was not very hard to para-surf. The only thing you needed to do, he said, was understand the wind. I am sure there are other things you need to do, but understanding the wind would be hard enough even if it was the only challenge. The surfers looked to in good condition. Look at the three photos below. No matter how well I understood the wind, I don’t think I could leap out of the water like that and come down again w/o sinking.
It was a new experience for me both in the natural and human geography (I wrote about Goias in the post below.) Brasilia has a lot of space. It still has some of the characteristics of the city built in the middle of nowhere. Most of this open space is maintained by law. Big cities have grown up around the original city. I knew that, but I didn’t know how much until my friend Gary and I drove through the periphery on the way to Pirenópolis, which is around two and a half hours outside Brasilia. The satellite cities are vibrant, but not very pretty. We didn’t stop. The picture below is Taguatinga. I took it out of the car window at a stop sign. Workers building Brasilia were its first inhabitants. It is certainly not as charming as Pirenópolis, pictured above, but it is lively.
Brazilians are city dwellers. They tend to live close together even in the countryside. After you drive through the canyons of tall buildings ringing the capital, you find yourself almost immediately in open country. When you come to a town, there are again houses, but between urban areas there are few single houses, as you would find in a “rural” area in the U.S. One of the reasons must be that people did not have cars. If you rely on busses or your feet to get around, you don’t want to be too far away from other people and services. America was like that before the car, but never quite like this, at least in the East. If you visit Civil War or Early American sites, as I do, you realize that rural regions in 19th Century America were fairly densely populated. People often lived on their own farms, which tended to be less than 160 acres, which is a quarter mile square. Brazilian settlement included lots of big farms and ranches. I wrote about this when I visited Parana a couple years ago. Laws such as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Homestead Act were designed to avoid this sort of settlement pattern on the plains, and they had their intended effects. Settlement patterns are still affected by the presence of these laws in the U.S. and the lack of similar rules in most of South America. But let me return to my travel notes.
Pirenópolis seems like a nice place to live. You can see above and below kids playing in the Rio Das Almas (River of Souls). I am sure there is an interesting back story to the name, but I was unable to find out. I suppose in the U.S. the fear of lawsuits would close down a swimming hole like the one pictured. Pirenópolis has the feeling of a kind of off-beat tourist town, a place maybe like Sedona in Arizona, but with a younger population, i.e. more kids. Like Sedona, it has a kind of residual “western” look. I saw several cowboys riding their horses down the streets. I bet the place gets crowded. They were setting up tables for the outdoor cafes as we had to head back to Brasilia. It is not a great idea to drive around on these roads after sundown.
Below is a street in Pirenópolis. As we walked around this very pleasant city, I realized the difference between ordinary tourism and diplomatic tourism. I enjoy both, but when I am doing my job I get to talk to people about their town, work, aspirations and opinions. This is better than just seeing buildings, no matter how pleasant. I get a feeling of having actually done something useful. Towns are made of people, not bricks. I also missed Chrissy. I would have enjoyed seeing this with her. It will be good when she comes down. This place will be a lot nicer.
I am not sure what Goiás reminds me of. Maybe it is just Goiás. Every place is like others and unique in its own way. I was surprised. I thought it would be flatter and more prairie-like. But much of the land was hilly and dotted with little ponds and lakes. They are man-made, but they fit in well with the landscape. And there are beautiful waterfalls, as you can see above at the fall of the Corumbá above. Below shows the river as it goes on its way in the other direction and you can see the landscape.
This is the dry season and it will get dryer before it rains. Then for a few months it will rain every day. That is one of the unique things about central Brazil. It is both very dry and very wet, so you get big waterfalls running through dry country side. The spray from the waterfalls creates evaporation in the dry air and makes a very pleasant, fresh and cool feeling. You can get an idea about the countryside from the pictures below. It is an open landscape with some trees, I suppose a type of savanna. Unlike the African savanna, however, there where no vast herds of grazing animals until European settlers introduced cows and horses. Where there is water under the ground, you often find palm trees.
More landscape below. I understand that clouds, as you see in the picture, are uncommon this time of the year. The winds were blowing in from the east, bringing in some clouds, but still no rain.
Below is another pretty picture of the Corumbá. It also shows the mixture of vegetation near the river, where it is nourished by the water and the spray. It stays green here. As you get away from the river, the trees get sparser and the vegetation browner.
Below is the path to the falls. Notice that it is steep with a railing secured by a few nails and bolts. I was a little afraid to lean on it too hard. I am heavier than the average visitor and I thought I might break the rail and tumble down the hill, an unpleasant prospect.
Many BNCs were created around Latin America during the years around World War II. They were supposed to foster understand and create connections among Americans and the people of Brazil and not incidentally counter Nazi propaganda, which was virulent and effective in the region.
BNCs have gone in and out of style with the U.S. government. At times we have given them significant support; other times we benignly neglected them. Even during the time of relative official neglect, however, we always kept the ties intact because most American FSOs (USIA and State) – working in the countries – like BNCs. They are easy to like. They are locally managed and usually self-sufficient. Their boards of directors often include important local people, the kinds of people we want to get to know and they provide a continuity that us diplomats, who come and go like migratory birds, really cannot. We always have friends at BNCs and this is important in hard times and good ones too.
Most of the money needed to support BNCs comes from English teaching and English has become a big business in recent years. This is both a threat and an opportunity for BNCs. The BNCs now must compete with for-profit organizations that are often well-financed and springing up like mushrooms after a soaking rain. I have no problem whatsoever with profit-making enterprises, but as an American I prefer that English be taught in the context of our culture and values. And the BNCs provide much more than nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Besides providing scholarships for language study, BNCs sponsor cultural events, hold lectures and help us with our exchange and educational programs. To the extent that we really reach youthful audiences in depth, the BNCs are a big part of the equation.
Last time I was in Brazil, I made it my business to visit the BNCs in my region (Rio Grande do Sul & Santa Catarina) on a regular basis. At that time, there were BNCs in Porto Alegre, Florianopolis and Joinville. I understand that the ones in Porto Alegre and Joinville are still prospering. Washington was in one of its less supportive phases back then, but I could still contribute books, programs and time. Attention by American diplomats was and is still important to BNCs. It adds to their cachet.
Today BNCs are back in style in official Washington because of their proven abilities to reach young audience and because of their expertise in English teaching. The English teaching is especially important in Brazil at this moment. The Brazilians themselves recognize the need. Their economy has gone global, but they do not have enough people with English skills needed to participate effectively. English is the world language of business, science and even tourism. With the flood of visitors expected for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in Rio two years later, the Brazilians know that they need to start now to meet the demand for English.
We are in the enviable position of having what people want and wanting to give it to them.
There are around 40 BNCs in Brazil today. I say “around” because it depends on how you count. Some BNCs have a for-profit affiliation that some of the BNC purists think is not good. My opinion is that we should judge them by what they do. If the organization does all the things that BNCs should do, i.e. it provides scholarships, holds seminars & exhibits, cooperates with outreach and integrates energetically into its local community, I think that it looks and acts like a BNC and we can call it one if that is what it wants to be called. I think we should be as inclusive as possible. BNCs are a great legacy left to us by good and farsighted people – Brazilians and Americans – going back to the 1930s. We can benefit from their years of work and we have a duty to steward it for the next generations. I look forward to visiting our BNCs and hope to get to all of them over the next three years. I am glad that they are back in style.
Let me tell you a little about our BNC here in Brasilia. It is called the Casa Thomas Jefferson. I remember it from the 1980s, when it was run by my friend and USIS colleagues Maureen Taylor. Back in those days, an American FSO directed the CTJ. In fact, we still sent directors until 1997, a time of budget cuts and a general downplaying of the need for public diplomacy. But our departure did not spell the end of the CTJ. On the contrary, it has grown and prospered beyond the dreams of the earlier generation.
The Casa Thomas Jefferson today is run by Brazilians with a local board made up of mostly Brazilians and some expat Americans. It is completely self-supporting and has grown to include six significant campuses around Brasilia (look at the pictures I have included to see what I mean) and eight min—operations embedded in local schools.
CTJ affiliates teach around 15,000 students each year. Some start as young as four years old. I have included a photo of the little kid classroom. They are on break now, so the teacher is preparing materials for them. But the biggest groups of students are middle school of high school age, although a significant number of college students are still involved and there are some adults.
Brazilian government entities contract with CTJ for English teaching and cultural training for their officials who are going overseas or who will have to work with English in their jobs here. CTJ recently trained Brazilian air traffic controllers, who need to use English in their daily work, and also engineers from EMBRAPA (the Brazilian agricultural research agency) who have to travel and interact with scientists worldwide.
We still work closely with CTJ, providing mostly moral but also some material support. Our Information Resource Center (FKA library) is collocated with the Lago Sul branch of the CTJ, as is the Fulbright office. We are probably most useful to them when we provide connections and training opportunities for their staff and management. CTJ wants to keep in the forefront of developments and we, with our worldwide reach (State is a unique organization in that respect) help with that. We also have stationed in Brazil officers devoted specifically to education, English teaching and information resource management, who provide extremely valuable support. So I think we do our part.
As I have been writing, we during the last week we have been cooperating with CTJ on our English immersion program (see earlier posts). This has been a wonderful thing. CTJ will hold its own EducationUSA fair later in August. We can cooperate again in something that we all benefit from doing and benefits Brazilian young people.
All things considered, it is a pretty sweet deal for everybody involved. I like an agricultural metaphor. It is like an orchard. We are harvesting the fruit of trees planted and nurtured by those who went before us. Our job is to keep it growing, all the while enjoying the fruit.
Public diplomacy is hard to measure. If I tally up all the people who have gone through BNC programs all over Brazil this year alone, I am sure we have reached thousands. Over the years, we are in the millions. But Brazil is a country of 190 million. How can we hope to have an impact? Might it not be better to “reach” millions through things traditional or social media?
First I have to respond that doing one thing does not preclude others. Our BNC efforts include face-to-face meetings, which are labor intensive, but they also have enormous social media and traditional media components. You saw the full-page newspaper report on our English immersion, for example. We also got a good piece of time on the evening television news. There is a definitive synergy. But let me put that aside for now.
The BNC experience is deep, intensive and rich in favorable outcomes. Many of the people who use the BNCs develop lasting connections with American. Some of the students at CTJ, for example, are second or third generation, as former student parents sent their kids. Significant numbers want to study in the U.S. or work at U.S. firms. They are strongly committed and this has an effect through social networks, electronic and otherwise. Recent studies have shown that people get many of their attitudes through social interactions several steps removed from themselves. The attitudes of friends of friends of friends can affect your attitudes and even physical characteristics such as body fat. Academics have studies this for a long time and we know it is true, although those who tell you that they really understand the transition mechanism are lying to you. I believe that getting 100,000 people really interested and talking to others is better than “reaching” millions in a shallow and short term transaction. I cannot prove that to you, but I think even a casual perusal of the history of ideas shows that it happens.
The BNC is a high leverage activity. I can devote relatively small amounts of time and money and DEEPLY reach lots of people, who will in turn reach many more. Take the example of our recent intensive English group. Around 1600 students applied from public schools around Brazil. These are ordinary Brazilian kids, w/o much contact with America. They are doing an extraordinary thing just by applying. Around 100 were chosen. They are already a special group chosen from a special group and the experience improved their skills making them even more special. Now consider when they go home to places that are hard to find on the map. People will ask them about their experience. They will be the source of opinion. Who knows how many they will reach personally and how long they will continue to do it, but it will be a big number. And their experiences will pass through friend to friend for a long time.
Our English immersion students got their tour of Brasilia. Fewer than half of them had visited their nation’s capital before, so we had an opportunity to introduce young Brazilians to Brasilia, which was fun. The weather, as usual, was brilliant as you can see from the photos.
The central government area, the “Plano Piloto” has remained much as it was designed. It is supposed to be modern with clean lines. Because the high plains (planalto) were flat and empty, this place provided a blank slate for the architects and planners. You can see the model in the picture above.
Building a new capital in the interior of the country was a dream of Brazilian leaders for centuries. They understood that moving the capital would draw development into the country. They identified places, like Brasilia, with near perfect climates, but they were just too far away from existing infrastructure. Beyond that, many officials and politicians were unenthusiastic about leaving their pleasant coastal cities and there was significant bureaucratic foot dragging.
President Juscelino Kubitschek decided to just do it – finally. You can see the man at his memorial above. He was the son of Czech immigrants and he always reminds me of Victor Laszlo. Building Brasilia was a truly audacious move. Juscelino or JK* pushed it through by force of will. He was criticized because of the expense and the inefficiency related to the urgency of the endeavor. There were no good roads to Brasilia and no infrastructure to build a city. They had to bring in everything: materials, workers, even water. They had to make a lake. Bulky and heavy materials, such as concrete, were sometimes flow in by airplane at great expense. JK understood that if it were not done fast and the construction pushed beyond the point of no return, it would never be done at all, so he accepted the cost and absorbed the criticism (Critics called him Pharaoh Juscelino).
It has now been more than fifty years since this spot of the high plains was turned into a city and we can see that it was an idea that worked. Much of Brazil’s growth in recent years has been in the central region. Having the capital in Brasilia helped pull interest, people, resources and development into the region, just as JK thought it would. JK’s slogan was “fifty years of development in five years.” It didn’t work out like that. But in the fifty plus years since his time, the region has achieved his dream. I think he would be content.
The picture above shows a couple of the English immersion kids becoming part of the celebration of Brasilia long before they were born, standing in front of a picture of a crowd of the time. You can read more about this here and here.
Let me just add a few more pictures. Brasilia was very beautiful. Below is a bust of Tiradentes, a national hero who fought and died for Brazilian independence.
Both pictures below are of the National Assembly. In behind you can see the building that house the various ministries.
I think that the Brasilia cathedral looks like a standing rib roast or maybe one of those things Fred Flintstone used to eat. Ostensibly it is reminiscent of Jesus’ crown of thorns. No matter what you think it looks like, the building is attractive within its landscape. You go down through an underground entrance, which is supposed to remind you of the catacombs presuming you had memories of catacombs to recall, but the effect does work well as you come out of the darkness into the light. The glass roof gives the whole place an open sky, maybe heavenly, aspect as you see in the photos. With all due modesty, I like my photo more than many others I have seen because I took them near midday on a sunny day. You can see the intensity of light that you might not get on a cloudier day or a time of the day when the sun was not as intense. The photos in the guides I have make it look a little dull. It really is very bright or at least it can be.
The photo above shows workers fixing the stained glass. The cathedral was being repaired when I visited. I have noticed that monuments all over the world are almost always being restored when I visit. It is rare to get to see anyplace w/o some kind of scaffolding or work barriers. I have been riding my bike past the Jefferson Memorial for more than twenty-five years and I don’t think I have ever seen it entirely w/o some work being done. This creates a minor dilemma when I take pictures. Do I put in the renovation, which is omnipresent, or do I take pictures around the repairs and show the “spirit” of the place. I usually opt for the prettier picture. I justify philosophically that I am getting the essence of thing, the true nature, instead of its ephemeral & corrupted temporal state.
This picture shows some of our students as a “whispering wall”. The shape and the smooth hard surface create an acoustical anomaly. Sound follows the wall, so that a person whispering dozens of meters away can be heard clearly at other points along the wall.
Above is the presidential residence. It is a long way off in the distance behind the emu. They had a few of these birds grazing in the grass. A different angle below shows the Brasilia landscape and the sprinklers that keep everything green during the dry season. There is plenty of water in Brasilia, enough to keep everything lush and green the whole year, but it actually falls only during half of the year. There is no reason to “conserve” water, as you might need to do in a desert. In fact, for half of the year there is too much water. Half of the year it rains every day and the other half it doesn’t rain at all, so they have to manage water to make it available all year around. This land in its natural or semi-natural state is a very difficult place for to live. That is why it remained sparsely settled for so long. But with infrastructure and improvements, it is be very pleasant. I suppose it is like southern California or parts of the Mediterranean in that water way, except that here the water doesn’t need to be moved from a long way away, but rather has to be moved in time of availability.
Below is an arm of the man-made lake, Lake Paranoá. W/o this lake, life in Brasilia would be a lot harder. The lake supplies water for the city and electricity through its hydropower at the dam. So much standing water also changes the local climate, adding a little much needed humidity during the dry season. It still gets very dry, but near the lake it is less so. The lake also provides wildlife habitat in otherwise desolate seasons and it looks good, as you can see from the picture.
Twenty-five English language students from Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, Tocantins, and the Federal District came to Brasilia for a week of full time English immersion sponsored by the Casa Thomas Jefferson and the American Embassy in Brazil. Their kick-off event was an American style picnic at the home of the U.S. Marines. Here they ate typical American foods, like hamburgers and hot dogs, played basketball and volleyball, participated in contests such as sack races and generally got to know each other.Ambassador Thomas Shannon opened the program along with long-time Case Thomas Jefferson Director Anna Maria Assumpçaõ.
The American Embassy in Brazil has sponsored immersion courses like this since 2006 and hundreds of young Brazilians have enjoyed the benefits. This year five binational centers will participate, drawing participants from all the regions in Brazil. Besides the Casa Thomas Jefferson, ICBEU in Londrina, ALUMNI in Saõ Paulo, CCBEU in Belém and ABA in Recife will participate. The immersion programs are part of the now ten-year old youth Ambassadors program, which brings young Brazilians to the United States. On previous visits, they have toured the U.S. and met many Americans including First-Lady Michelle Obama. This year, for the first time, American students will come to Brazil on return visits.
In the pictures you can see the types of activities this year’s students experienced in Brasilia. We cannot take pictures of the learning taking place, the understanding being shared or the friends being made, but we are sure that these will be the best parts of the program.
The event was covered by a reporter from the Correio Braziliense and the local TV Globo affiliate.
The English immersion and the youth ambassadors programs are very competitive and require a high level of English-language ability going in. But they are all kids from Brazilian public schools and most are from interior small cities. It make you optimistic about the future to meet and talk to kids like this.
Lago Sul, where I live, is much nicer than the city of Brasilia. They say that the plan for Brasilia was a tribute to modernism. I think that says it all. The guy who is responsible for lots of the design is still alive. I think he is more than 100 years old. He defends his concept with vigor to this day, but he lives in Rio. In any case, the city is turning out better than he planned. Brazilian people are smarter than a few old planners.
But Lago Sul grew up more organically. It has sidewalks, trees, private houses & streets with corners. People prefer to live in places like this. Modernism is just not a human system. It reminds me of science fiction written in the 1950s and 1960s. They thought the future would be something like modernism, with a clear break from the past and a kind of rational collectivism. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. Of course, Lago Sul is not the inexpensive part of town, so there is no surprise it is pleasant.
The weather around here is perfect every day. I can well understand why it is easy to put things off. The old saying that “you have to make hay while the sun is shining” has no real meaning here.* In Virginia, I sometimes pushed myself out for a run on a nice day, anticipating a worsening of the weather later. In Brasilia I can be reasonably sure that tomorrow morning will be just like today. In a few months the rainy season will start. That means that we will get precipitation every day, but still very much predictable and while it will rain almost every day, it will not rain all day.
One of the great things about having a pleasant climate is the way people can mix outdoor and indoor space. Indoor space can extend out into the yard and if you have it covered against the rain and sun it can be essentially the same room, with what we might characterize as indoor furniture and activities. You cannot do this in Wisconsin because of the cold much of the years and the unpleasant humidity and/or legions of mosquitoes the rest. In Florida, they have the so-called “Florida rooms,” but they need to be screened in against the bugs and do not provide the real seamless interface. I saw some of the outdoor room concept in Arizona. It works there about half of the year, when it is not too hot. In Brasilia it is essentially a year-round option.
The picture that shows the straw roof is of a restaurant we went to for the going away party for one of the staff. It was a nice place with ostensibly indigenous food. It was good, but much of the charm came from the indoor, outdoor interface. If you ate “inside” you felt the influence of the outside and vice-versa.
I have to add a disclaimer, lest I annoy some colleagues. I like the Brasilia climate. I liked it last time I was here and I like it even more now. But my discussions with others indicate my opinion may not be universal. I am easy to please. I like most places. I even liked Iraq in many ways. You just had to get up early in the morning to enjoy it. People say, and I suppose they are right, that Brasilia suffers from an overly dry climate in the winter and an overly wet one in the summer. Some people can’t take it. They get asthma, nosebleeds & other respiratory troubles. I know that is true, but I cannot say I actually understand it at a personal level. It seems to me that you just have to adapt your activities to do most things in the early morning or evening, drink a lot of water and eat things like watermelon. It is not different from Arizona in that way, but I suppose the green surrounding create a deception. The dust and smoke can be annoying during the very dry-burning season. I don’t look forward to that, but it only lasts a few weeks. After that, we get rainbow season. Wait to see the pictures.
BTW -the picture of the beer cans just shows my task ahead of trying all Brazilian beers. It is a hard job, but somebody has to do it.
*It occurs to me that I have to explain that old saying to some readers. Making hay, means putting the hay up in bales. It is a job that must be done in sunny and dry weather because if the hay is wet it decays and the decaying process makes heat. Packed together closely enough in a barn, the heat can be enough to start a fire, spontaneous combustion. I don’t really know much about hay making. Chrissy used to do it on the farm, so most of my knowledge comes second hand from her, but I have seen piles of wet grass smolder. When you dig inside, the inner layers are black and hot. Hay is very tightly packed. I can well imagine that if you had enough of this packed together the inner core could get hot enough to burn. Anyway, the saying means that you have to do things when you have the opportunity and the time is right, not when you feel like it.