A Cherry Flavored Fleeting Beauty

The cherry trees are in full bloom. It is hard to recall that snow was on the ground just a few weeks ago. Some pictures are included with the post.  The picture at the side shows the bread line from the FDR Memorial. I went down to the cherry trees and visited Roosevelt on the way back.

Cherry blossoms are precious because they are ephemeral.  We know that they will not be there for a long time and we have to enjoy them while we can. We revel in the passing and should not wish the moment to linger beyond its time. They are beautiful precisely because they will not last.

We try to preserve too much. A report this morning on NPR talked about people worried that the world of the Mario Brothers (Donkey Kong) was disappearing. They want to preserve and protect the classic world of games. Just let it go.  We should let a lot of things go. Let them become stuff of memory and then let them slip quietly into oblivion. Nothing lasts forever.

I was reading a book called “False Economy.” The author talked about dead-end strategies and how some things just don’t make it. The example he used was the panda bear.  Besides being cute, they don’t have much going for them. They eat only low nutrition bamboo, which they evidently cannot properly digest, so they have to eat a lot but don’t get much bang for the bite.  Mating is a chore they don’t enjoy and on those rare occasions when they do muster up energy and the urge, there is a good chance nothing will come of it. What is amazing is not that they are endangered but that there are any of them still around at all. A less cute animal would have gone the way of the dodo a century ago.  But pandas have a constituency.  People cried a few weeks ago at the National Zoo when the Chinese took their panda back.

I remember seeing them at the zoo. Well actually, I am not sure I saw them at the zoo. They don’t  move very much. You could just put a fur there and claim it was a panda and nobody would know the difference. They are an evolutionary dead end. People have perhaps hastened their demise, but didn’t change the direction. I tried to think of why it wasn’t true, but I couldn’t. 

BTW – The pictures are much bigger scale. If you want to see more detail, you can go to the source and look at the bigger versions. 

Decent Folks

 I don’t make a fetish of equality. In fact, I usually value diversity over equality and believe a good system is one that provides opportunities for most people to live meaningful lives in line with their aspirations and talents. This is along the lines enabling the pursuit of happiness, not actually providing happiness or even significantly facilitating it. One reason we cannot advocate ”providing” happiness is that we don’t know what happiness is. Nor can we know, since each person defines it somewhat differently. One thing we do know is that happiness comes from believing your life has some meaning and a meaningful life is often not an easy one. Meaning in life comes from making choices and living with the consequences of them. If you cannot or do not make choices, you are an object and most people don’t want that, no matter how comfortable they might be.

So a good government is one that enables most people to make meaningful choices and create meaningful places for themselves in society. A good society enables most people just to be decent folks. I think we are slipping up on this.

What I don’t like is an increasing tournament mentality, maybe even a lottery mentality. This is a specific type of completion, which is unusually pernicious since it not only features a winner take all (or almost all) finish, but also tolerates or even encourages sabotage and subterfuge.

Competition usually carries with it the notions of winners and losers, but in a broad society base with continuous diverse, you can have different sets of winners based on different skill sets, luck or time. If you find that your skills are not particularly suited to one field, you might go into another. It is possible to have whole different sets of criteria. In a balanced life you will win some and lose some and in a reasonably open opportunity society you can benefit from the innovation and techniques of the winners even when you don’t yourself win. The challenge and response are important. The “final” outcome is less crucial because there is not final outcome. (While competition underlies all human societies (and all animal and plant species as per Darwin) we have modified out some of the more destructive aspects.)

A tournament competition is not like that. In a tournament you go directly against other competitors. Your goal need not to be better in general, you just have to be better than the competition. This is great for games and game shows (like American Idol) but it is hell in real life. Most of us don’t like to be on our game all the time and few of us really like head to head competition. But society is becoming more like a tournament all the time. If I am right that most people don’t want to be involved in a constant tournament, why are we in them more often?

One reason is that some people really DO like the tournament model and they can sometimes force this kind of competition on others. But there have always been such people. Why do the dominate at some times and not others?

IMO they are enabled by several conditions. The first is technological. It is possible for a person to cast a much longer shadow. There is a program out now about life on earth. Oprah Winfield narrates. Why is she narrating this program? Because she can. Oprah does almost everything. She is an actress, a narrator, an editor, a commentator, a talk show host, and she also is just very-very rich. Oprah has beat out the competition in so many areas because technology allows her to be virtually in many places at the same time. She has displaced hundreds or thousands of other narrators, commentators etc in a way that would have not been possible a century ago, when such things usually required actual physical presence and time spent.

The “March King” John Phillip Sousa opposed the rapid spread of phonographs. He feared it would hurt live-performances and virtually kill the “production” of music in the home and he was right. In days past it was common for family members to perform musical programs for guests and each other. Probably most of them were “bad,” but if you rarely heard a “good” one, it was okay. Today your poor little sister has to compete with the world’s best musicians available on recordings that sound even better than the live show. It is no wonder we have all retreated becoming passive listeners, each of us equipped with our own I-Pods. Most of us have lost the tournament, AND we know it.

This goes for arts & performances. It goes for business too and it has gone way beyond mass production. Goods have become more ethereal and sometimes contain almost no physical component. Software is like that. It can be duplicated at almost no cost and sold for significant profits. Beyond that, it true tournament fashion, one software system will come to dominate. There is a “market” for pirated copies of successful software, but there really is no market for a myriad of alternatives. Many people dream of knocking off and replacing Google, but nobody thinks there will be thousands of little locally produced Googles. In the tag line from “Highlander”, there can be only one.

Another driver of this tournament is globalization. This is not the first time the world has seen his. The first globalization I know much about came at the end of the Greek dark ages, around 700BC. Of course, I am using the globalization term generically to say that beginning around that time the Greek world encompassed THE world as far as they cared. There problems were remarkably similar to ours.

One of the biggest problems was growing inequality. Great inequality is impossible as long as you live in a poor, localized environment. There just is not enough total wealth nor the means to accumulate or preserve it. In other words, even if the king owns everything, there is not that much available to own and his capacity to use it is limited. A human can only physically consume so much and it is not possible for the richest guy to eat or drink much more than the poorest ones (presuming they eat enough to stay alive) and besides fat, you really cannot accumulate eating. Globalization brought in luxury goods and changed the equation. Suddenly eating goat meat and drinking goat milk was no longer enough.

What globalization provides is scale. The big fish can grow bigger in a bigger pond. You can see this in the modern world in languages. English the most widespread language in the world, so an author who writes in English can access hundreds of millions of readers with not much variable cost. (More than half the world’s technical and scientific publications are in English, not because they are all written by native English speakers, but because it is the international language. If a Japanese scientist wants to communicate with a German scientist, he does it in English.) An author writing in a language like Norwegian is just out of luck. Even if he becomes “world famous” in Norway, he probably cannot sell more than a half a million copies of his book. The market is just too small. It is just not possible for a writer in Norwegian to become a mega-best seller. But if he taps into the global market, it is possible. That is one reason why so many people write in English. There is a significant network effect. But globalization also leads to the tournament effect.

I don’t think there is much we can do about those things I mentioned above. The ancient Greeks wrested with the problem. There was the example of the Spartans, who successfully localized themselves and kept the changes at bay for a couple of centuries, but while we can admire Spartan martial spirit and vigor, I don’t think we want to pay the price they did. We have to live with a world where Oprah can take the place of thousands of us. But there are things that are within our control.

Most of us are never going to do anything great and almost none of us will be famous for being great because greatness is a zero sum game. Technology and science can give us more stuff, but it cannot give us more greatness in the famous sense. There can be only a limited number of famous people. It is the nature of being famous that the club is very exclusive.

We can go back to the concept of “decent folks.” Being decent doesn’t imply anything extraordinary. It is possible for almost everybody to achieve “decent” status. And you don’t have to be famous, but you do have to have some standards and that requires some “judging.”

I think we have abandoned or even tried to destroy the idea of decency because we have been loath to judge those who didn’t live up to it and we have fallen into the perfection trap. A decent person is not a perfect person. I consider myself a decent person, yet I know I have done or sometimes failed to do some of the decent things. When I realized my error, I sometimes tried to make up for them, but I didn’t always succeed. Nevertheless, on balance I am decent.

Am I hypocritical? Sometimes I am. But I like it that we have hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice plays to virtue and being hypocritical implies that we do indeed have a standard that many of us do not attain, but believe is valuable.

If you apply a standard of decency to fallible humans, you will indeed have some hypocrisy. But consider the alternatives. Do we want the kind of world where a man can cheat on his wife while she is fighting cancer, lie about fathering a child, treat everybody he knows poorly AND not feel he should be ashamed to let people find out about all of this?

BTW – there is a hilarious South Park episode that addresses this kind of thing.

Most people can do the decent thing most of the time. AND most people know what that is most of the time, although there will be some variation among individuals and groups.

I think that happiness comes from self respect – not this self esteem thing we try to “build” among people who might not otherwise have earned it – and self respect comes from having choices and making the decent choices most of the time. Many of those star athletes and wacky celebrities we so often see on their way to detox or apologizing for their latest escapade are rich in self esteem, but lacking totally in self respect. The decent choice is the one you feel good about, even if other people don’t praise you for it. It often means doing the right thing that is hard, rather than the pleasurable thing that you can excuse later.

Unearned success is spiritually corrupting. Who among us would want to be Paris Hilton if you had to BE Paris Hilton in all her goofy glory? When people look back on the good times in their lives, they almost never reminisce about the fat times when somebody gave them something for nothing. It is rather the challenges met and mastered that make us happy. The actual rewards of the accomplishments are often secondary to the choices made. Happiness is earned, not given.

Few of us can be famous and most of us cannot be rich, but all of us have the choice to be decent folks … or not. All of us can pursue happiness and lots of us can catch it. But nobody else can do it for us.

Brazilian Days of Future Past

I have been reading clips from Brazilian newspapers. The Embassy put me on their electronic distribution network and gave me SharePoint access. I get daily PDF files of articles about environment, energy, politics, culture and security. My Portuguese is coming back very nicely, at least reading. I can read most of the articles fairly rapidly and I can do it well enough that I actually enjoy it, i.e. I can get the news and views from the article rather than just treat it as a language lesson. It is a lot easier to read contemporary articles and easy if you can follow the news narrative.  Since I know what to expect, I can often understand unfamiliar words and phrases from the context.   I am learning a lot about cotton subsidies, foreign military sales in Brazil, renewable energy and the Brazilian government’s attitude about Iran.

Naturally, it is easier to relearn a language than to start from scratch.  I used to reach the Brazilian newspapers every day when I was assigned there. The funny thing is that I think I am actually better now than I was back then.  It doesn’t seem possible. The intervening quarter century should have wiped out much of my Portuguese and it had, but the reading came back very fast.  I don’t remember being able to sight read articles as I can now.  Maybe my standards are lower, but I think my general ability to comprehend and figure out written foreign languages just go better with practice, even if the practice was in Polish or Norwegian and not Portuguese. I will see how good I really am when they give me the test before I start formal study.

My comprehension of spoken Portuguese is not good at all. I got several Brazilian movies.  I couldn’t tell what was going on w/o the subtitles, although I am not entirely sure it is only the language because even with the subtitles I sometimes cannot follow every plot line.  There is a lot of cultural context in film.  Sometimes I cannot follow British television shows, even though I understand most of the language.  I never understood the attraction of Benny Hill, for example.  

I used to watch the Brazilian news every night when I was working there and I recall understanding it well-enough.   But news is familiar.  Maybe that is why I can understand the newspaper articles so well.  I wouldn’t want to tackle a Brazilian novel. 

New technologies are making it easier to study language. I can get the Brazilian news on the same day.  I remember when I first learned Portuguese.  I had to page through copies of very old magazines and newspapers on that ultra thin airmail paper.

I am really motivated to get the language right. I want to be precise. My Portuguese used to be fluent, but I don’t think it was really good. This time I will do better. 

Brazil was my first post. I learned a lot and made a lot of mistakes.  I learned some lessons so that I won’t make the same mistakes again. I suppose I will come up with a whole new set of them.

Brazil is a very interesting country and I can’t think of a better place for me at this time.

The Irrational World of Persuasion

I am making a presentation about public affairs at FSI in a few weeks.  It is a short presentation to mid-level officers. Below is some of the raw material thinking I have been doing about irrationality and reciprocity in persuasion. I figure that all of the stuff below will distill into one or two short paragraphs, but thinking it through is useful and I think better when I can write and ramble.  Since I have it written out, I figured I would post it.   

We like to think the truth will always come out, but isn’t necessarily so. Similarly, people are often not persuaded by facts or even their own experience. Persuasion just is not logical in the way we want. 

If people do not always (or even usually) respond rationally to arguments and persuasion, they do tend to respond in recognizable patterns. Marketers and salesmen have known this intuitively – and used it effectively – for many years. Only recently has science or at least academics, recognized and tried to explain the phenomenon. Here are some of the books that talk about that. There is some overlap with a list I made earlier about decision making that you can see at this link

I won’t try to convey all the information in all those books on the lists above. Suffice to say that people respond differently to identical sets of propositions or incentives depending on how they are stated, framed or presented and that people’s preexisting predilections, prejudices and perceptions determine not only which arguments are most persuasive but also which facts are considered salient or even heard at all. That is why attempts to “set the record straight” usually only work with those already inclined to believe you. If the bad news is that people do not make decisions rationally, the good news is that they make their irrational* decisions in patterns that can be understood if not perfectly predicted. The bad news that comes after the good news is that these patterns can also be manipulated by those whose motives and goals we abhor, so the lesson is that we are playing this game, whether we like it or not. 

So if we are talking about actual persuasion, it probably won’t help just to make information available. Providing information was a key to our success in the Cold War because accurate information was in very short supply. Today in all but the dwindling coterie dictatorships in the world’s most benighted places, information is already available.  It is how that information is put together – the contexts, relationships and the narratives – that counts. As persuaders we need to acknowledge what we know, what salesmen and marketers have long understood and what even science is beginning to explain. We are not in the information business. Information and facts are part of our raw material, but our business involves persuasion that is less like a library and more like a negotiation paradigm and rational decision making is not enough to achieve success. 

The first persuasion decision you have to make is whether or not to engage at all. No matter how urgent a problem, you should not engage unless you have a reasonable chance of success.   There are times for aggressive action, times for more passive approaches and times when you just have to hunker down until conditions improve. It is hard to know when the times or right and even harder to manage the transitions among them, which is why people who are good at knowing make the big bucks and are sought after or reviled (depending on which side they are on). 

There are some folks who say that you should be out there always and they are right that you should never fold entirely if it is something you care about and you have the capacity to stay.  But standing in front of an irresistible wave not only depletes your resources but also makes you less able to fight again another day. It is much better to let the wave expend its energy and then come back in.

Once you are engaged, think of it in a negotiation paradigm, not usually a negotiation between you and an adversary, but more of the win-win with you among a large number of participants.  Most people involved are not direct participants, but they are often the ones you want to persuade.   The committed radicals are not the targets of your persuasion.  There is no argument you can use and no concession you can make that will persuade them.  Your job is to talk over, around or through them.  Luckily, few people are really committed radicals and you can find some common ground with almost anybody.

Let’s talk about common ground. What if you have some monumental disagreement with somebody?  You might think that you cannot make any progress until the big thing is solved and then lament that the big thing is unsolvable. This is the wrong way of looking at it. In negotiations, it might be possible to set aside the big thing and work on a series of mutually beneficial smaller one.   Sometimes the momentum from successfully addressing the little issues makes solving the big one possible.  Just as often, it makes the big issue less relevant.  Most big problems are never “solved” in the context in which they were created. They are just overtaken by events. The situation might change so that it just doesn’t matter.    

Some families have a rule that you cannot discuss religion or politics. They know that agreement on these issues is nearly impossible, that a dialogue will just create more tension and that they can be safely avoided at family gatherings. 

Denial and avoidance are perfectly good tactics. Many things really do not need to be talked through and resolved and much diplomacy involved making sure sleeping dogs are not disturbed.  Not everybody likes this strategy and there will be persistent calls to “get it out in the open”.   There may be a time for this kind of frontal assault, but if dialogue will merely sharpen differences without resolving them and entrench individuals in their positions it is pernicious.  In the case of any contentious issue, there are also always a fair number of people who are professionally aggrieved.  Their goal is to keep the dialogue alive and fresh as long as possible.  In a rational world, dialogue would almost always produce better outcomes, but we don’t live in a perfectly rational world (see above).

If we are wise to avoid the frontal assault, what do we do about hard issues? When possible go around them, avoid the grievance professionals when possible and deny them a forum when you can. In public affairs, as in negotiation, you never want to be stuck on one issue where you cannot divert or make tradeoffs. One of the strengths of diversity is that it waters down grievances. If you have two opposing groups with one intransigent issue, you have a problem. But you have an interesting community if you have a dozen such groups.   

So in addition to denial, add dilution to your public affairs tool box.

Some people think it is naive to talk about win-win negotiation.  They say that somebody has got to come out on top. Avoid such people if possible because working with them will often lead to such an unhappy result. For most other things, however, we can all get more of what we want.  That is the whole basis of free exchange and cooperation in general. People all do not want the same things most things you get from a free exchange will be worth more to you than what you gave up.  The same goes for the guys on the other side and the same goes in persuasion as in negotiation.

The problem comes with the natural and good human desire to be generous. Win-win doesn’t mean giving away more than you should.  It doesn’t mean sacrifice. Those things are lose-win. It means that you get what you want AND I get what I want. Nobody should go into an engagement unless he/she believes that. But we do.

One of the dumbest things you can do is to make needless concessions.  It is not generous to give away your important positions. It is just dumb and it makes nobody really happy. Everybody will think that you are insincere. Either you didn’t really believe in your own position in the first place or you are lying about your concession, or –even worse – you are patronizing. There are to be a mutuality, a reciprocity.

The basis of almost all human relationships is reciprocity. All human societies believe in reciprocity. It has survival value. You want to be able to give to your fellow man and expect that he will do the same when you are in need. When that breaks down, so does civil society. It is probably a good idea to be SEEN to get something in return anyway, since if you don’t others will impute an ulterior motive anyway.

I know that this sounds crassly materialistic, but the reciprocity need not be material. You might help a person in the “pay it forward” mode, assuming that when he gets the opportunity he will help somebody else. The reciprocity might just be gratitude. But when a recipient is left w/o some way to reciprocate, a good person feels disrespected.  At first they are happy to get something for nothings, but they soon learn to despise their benefactor.  And maybe they should, since his “generosity” is taking their human dignity.

A simple rule in persuasion is that it is often better to receive than to give.  Let the other parties feel that they have discharged their social obligations, maybe even that THEY are the generous ones. You notice that the most popular individuals are rarely those who need or want nothing from others, even if they are very generous. And one of the most valuable gifts you can receive is advice and knowledge.  Let others share their culture and experience.

I have had my biggest successes in public affairs when I genuinely wanted to learn something. My first assignment when I got to Poland a few years back was to write a report on the Polish media. I interviewed dozens of reporters, editors and academics and they became my best contacts, often sending me updates or referring to my questions even months and years later. The most influential thing you can often do with an individual is listen carefully to what they tell you and come back a while later being honestly able to say, “I was thinking about what you said and you were right.” This interest cannot be easily faked.  I have been “played” by people who have taken the course and try to feign interest in my esoteric pursuits or ask my advice. When they praise the insights, but repeatedly fail to act on them, trust disappears. Of course, maybe I have run into people who are just so good at it that I couldn’t tell.  I suppose that would be successful persuasion.


*   I use the term “irrational” cautiously. “Rational” decision making is overrated and under examined. We make decisions based on a variety of preferences and emotional factors, some of which we cannot state. When they are reduced to their “rational” components, they may no longer make sense. There are things that really cannot be reduced to rational parts. The lyrics to “Some Enchanted Evening” actually sum it up well, “Who can explain it, who can tell you why? Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.” Or we can quote GK Chesterton “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. He is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” If we seek only rational decisions, a computer can do it for us much better than we can.

Various Facts About Foresty around the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge

I drove with Frank Sherwood to the Virginia tree farm of the year and got a chance to talk to him as we walked around on the ground. Frank has been doing forestry in Virginia for thirty-five years and I got some good information on drive down from Winchester. 

This area of Virginia features a lot of mixed hardwoods and white pines. I was very familiar with white pines form Wisconsin, but I really had a lot to learn about them. For example, white pine wood is light and not as hard or strong as loblolly.  It is good for fence rails (it doesn’t twist) and it is used in log cabins, but it is not as much use as structural timber.  Frank lamented that there is not much of a market for white pine saw timber in the immediate area, besides in those two limited uses. A lot of the local white pine had not grown straight and un-branched.   The newer plantations are doing better.

White pines have not been developed genetically as well as loblolly and it is less likely to be planted, since natural regeneration works very well.   A white pine rotation is around fifty years (15-18 years longer than loblolly) with two possible thinning. 

Pulp prices have remained steady over the years, Frank told me.   Some people are a little concerned about biofuels, which would compete with pulp and drive the prices up (good for landowners), but there currently is not a biofuels market in the Winchester region.  You can make ethanol from cellulous, but it is not worth it with today’s technologies.   That means that effective biofuels for wood is to burn it directly and for that you need local facilities that burn it.   The alternative is to make wood pellets, but that industry is also not present locally.

Landowners have a couple options for timber selling.  The one you get the most money for is saw timber.  Saw timber will yield $150-400 per 1000 board feet.  Pulp is the cheapest, maybe biofuels in the near future.  Pulp yields $5-7 a ton for pine and $2-3 for hardwood.  In between is scragwood.  These are small diameter but straight trees that can be sawed into rough boards used in crates and pallets.

Frank feeds the mill in Luke, Maryland.  He says that the mill’s catchment area is getting bigger because it is harder to find wood in local areas.  Development and forest fragmentation are the causes.  You can do forestry on small tracts, but at some point it gets to be economically unviable.  You probably need around forty acres to do decent management. Development has been taking forestry out of business. Although the recent economic downturn has stopped much of it, development will resume when the good times roll again. Too bad.

Frank doesn’t know of anybody using biosolids or animal manure on forest lands in this part of the Shenandoah valley or around.  There are several chicken operations (we drove past a Perdue operation) that produce a fair amount of chickenshit, but Frank didn’t know what they did with it.  Chickenshit is a powerful fertilizer, high in potassium, but as I understand it, chickenshit has to be left to decompose a little otherwise it can burn out the crops.  IMO forest lands would be a good place to dispose of some of these farm wastes.  There is a lot of forest and they could absorb and use the nitrogen and phosphate w/o letting it slip into the Chesapeake Bay. Of course, the problem is transportation. Manure is bulky, heavy and stinky.

The problem is concentration.  These large animal operations concentrate the crap. That changes it from a valuable fertilizer into a potential pollution problem. The difference between a life-giving medicine and a deadly poison is often the dosage.

Anyway, those are some of the things I learned from Frank.  The biggest benefit of writing the tree farm of the year article is getting to talk to people like him while actually setting foot on the forests.

2010 Virginia Tree Farm of the Year Visit

Noble Laesch, the father of the current owner Judith Gontis, bought this acreage in the late 1960s and it has been a certified tree farm for the last twenty-eight years. Laesch and Gontis did not live on the land and so for the last twenty-eight years it has been forester Frank Sherwood’s business and pleasure to look after these 927 acres of hilly mixed forest just inside the Rockingham County line.

It is a tree farm with great diversity in terms of species composition, topography, soils and microclimates. The ridges are still dominated by mixed hardwoods, although gradually white pines are taking over, both through natural processes and forestry practices. We looked at a logging operations and examined some of the recently cut stumps during a recent visit. The partially shade tolerant white pines had seeded in naturally under an older stand of mixed hardwood, mostly scarlet oak, but were suppressed until released by the forestry operation. 

 We counted 130 rings on a scarlet oak stump. For the first sixty years of life, the tree grew slowly and crookedly. It is clear that there were too many trees here competing for sun, nutrients and water. We have no record of how the neighboring trees were thinned, but the tree started to grow much faster at around sixty until it slowed in older age. Unfortunately, although very big, this scarlet oak, like most of the others in the stand, had begun to rot in the middle. It was past time to remove them and give the white pines their time in the sun. Within a few years this will be an almost pure stand of white pine.

Farther down the hill was a recently thinned plantation, a total of 126 acres of twenty-year-old white pine and a clear cut left to regenerate naturally in white pine. The trees were vigorous but widely spaced. The blueberries had come in very thickly and perhaps they just outran the pine seedlings.   The plantation was clearly better for timber production, but the naturally regenerated area had cost nothing to plant and the widely spaced trees were providing excellent openings for wildlife.   As with any management plan, it depends on what the landowner wants and it was interesting to see the side-by-side comparison of different choices.

The tulip-poplars that grow so profusely on the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge do well here too, but only in coves or bowls that have deeper soil than the rocky and sometimes sandy slopes.   In these places you find towering tulip poplars that can be harvested at regular intervals and regenerated naturally.

The rest of the tree farm is mixed hardwoods, especially white and red oak, plus some maples, as well as white pine.  This is white pine country. Although loblolly can be grown here too, the white pines do it naturally. With Frank Sherwood’s advice, Mrs. Gontis, as her father before her, manages for pulp and saw timber mostly through selective cuttings.  

Like all well-managed tree farms, this one provides a home for wildlife, a place for recreation and protection for water resources. The farm is drained by Runion Creek, whose waters find their way into the Shenandoah and the Potomac and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. Although there is some development in the region, it looks like this tree farm and its 927 acres will continue to provide these kinds of ecological services for years to come. 

130 +/- Years

The stump is from a scarlet oak that started life sometime around 1870 up the hills just over the northern boundary of Rockingham County, where I was visiting this year’s tree farm of the year. I didn’t count all the rings, but it is close. I sharpened a little on the picture so you can see the pattern. It tells a little about Virginia history.

You can see that it grew hardly at all for the first sixty years. This is probably because it was severely overcrowded. This area was almost completely cut over in the decades before the Civil War. Some of the wood was used for building, mining supports & staves, but mostly for charcoal for little foundries and lime kilns in the region. The trees grew back after the industries moved along and they came back thick and for about sixty years, roughly from 1870-1930 there wasn’t enough sun or water to go around. (In those days there weren’t as many deer and other varmints around. These days, they would browse down some of the trees.) Our tree was also leaning a little. You can see that it grew as a reaction more on one side.

But something happened around 1930. Somebody probably cut down some of the trees.  Or it could have been a fire or insect infestation, but that seems less likely, since whatever it was didn’t harm our tree here. In fact, it started to grow a lot faster, until it slowed again down because of its age.

Scarlet oaks are part of the red oak family, but they are among the worst members. They wood is not as good northern or southern red oaks and scarlet oaks tend to rot in the heart or have other irregularities. The logger said that the logs in the pile shown in the picture were probably not up to saw timber standards because of this.

All members of the red oaks family have open pores, which is why they cannot be used for barrels and generally do not do well when exposed to water. Even as seasoned firewood, they can hiss when burned, since they absorb water easily and a little rain will soak in. The oak whiskey barrels used for Bourbon whiskey are always white oak. White oak also makes better firewood. 

There were mostly scarlet oaks on this ridge, mixed with white pines. White pines are partially shade tolerant when they are young, so they will come in under the oaks. The loggers cut out the scarlet oaks and the forest will come back as mostly pine. The scarlet oaks were almost done anyway. Many were already rotting in the centers and they were well past prime as timber trees.

This part of Virginia is white pine country, at least on the hillsides. In the coves, where the soil is deeper, the yellow-poplars do very well. The picture above shows some of them. They grow very fast. This stand has been harvested twice since the late 1970s and it is ready for a third cut, as you can see.

Yellow-poplar is good for furniture inside drawers and cabinets with veneer of oak or other high quality wood on the outside. Yellow-poplar doesn’t shrink or swell very much, so it is good for that purpose. 

I will write more about this subject tomorrow. 

Alex & Mariza

I drove up to Harrisonburg for Alex’s birthday.  He is doing okay, but is still having some loneliness problems. We didn’t do anything extraordinary, mostly talked. We did go to lunch and supper together and went got a few necessities at Walmart. Lunch was at Kyoto, one of those Japanese steak houses where they do the grill show with the food. 

Mariza’s birthday was a couple days ago. She came down from Baltimore for it.  We had some cake, but we aren’t very big on the party things.

I wrote the birthday stuff last year and nobody feels comfortable about too much recent information being divulged. There is a kind of declassification period that must be respected.   

Suffice to say that I am proud of the adults they have become and I enjoy their company, but I miss the children they were. These are the times that I feel that most acutely.

Thoughts on Cars and Trucks

I was part of a new car design survey today. I think that they chose me as part of the control group that knew nothing about cars. I filled out a survey about the kinds of criteria I would use in buying a new car. 

Then I went in and saw about a dozen new car designs.   Evidently they were Volkswagens, Hondas, Toyotas and Chryslers.   We were asked to evaluate each car in terms of looks, interiors etc.   Most of the cars were too small inside, IMO.  I like the feeling of my Honda Civic.  Although the car is small, it has a lot of room in the driver’s seat.  A lot of the bigger cars don’t really have that feel.

I don’t really care much about cars.  I want one that is reasonably safe and comfortable and one that gets good mileage.   Other than that, I cannot tell much about them.   As part of the survey I had to guess what kind of car we were looking at.  I don’t think I did very well. 

I watched an old movie “Convoy” with Kris Kristofferson. It was made in 1978 when the price of gas had gone up and the 55 MPH speed limits were imposed.  There were a few movies like this that portrayed the anger associated with the perceived loss of the freedom of the open road.  “Smokey and the Bandit” was another one like this, a lot of law breaking and destruction of property. 

I wanted to be a long-distance truck driver once. I was an indifferent student when I started college and didn’t see much future in that.  When I worked a Medusa Cement, the truck drivers seemed to have it best.  They got out on the road, while we just loaded the bags of cement on their trucks. I would not have been a good truck driver. It is a subset of the general driving thing and my lack of love of cars (mentioned above) is probably an indicator that it is not one of my strengths.  

The 1970s were the tail end of the trucker golden age anyway.  Traffic was getting worse.  Speed limits were coming down and generally the open road was disappearing.  Everything is a lot more organized now and much less of an adventure.

The 1970s was also the time when containerized cargo changed shipping in general.  It put a lot of truckers and longshoremen out of jobs.   That really revolutionized commerce. 

Arlington Cemetery

I have been riding my bike to work again through Arlington Cemetery, as I wrote in yesterday’s post. Daily exposure to something can desensitize you to its details, but it can also help you see and appreciate it more. I am not sure which side I fall on most of the time. Maybe I see it new again each season. Anyway, I took a couple of pictures.