Here in Brasilia

I arrived in Brasilia after the overnight flight on American. I got to go through that new scanning machine. It really is not a good thing.  I don’t mind if they see me in my natural form, but the machine is even more sensitive to stuff in your pockets. They gave me a hard time because I forgot to take my little notebook out of my back pocket. Maybe they should just install showers at the airport and make everybody do through them, as they used to do as municipal pools when I was a kid. I also found a note in my gear that they had opened my luggage and inspected it. I pity those guys. Everything in my luggage was reasonably clean, but it might have been a different story on a return trip.

The flight itself was not that uncomfortable because I got into the exit row, with a little more leg room, but discomfort is a matter of degrees when you are flying. The flight left Miami at 11:05 pm and arrived in Brasilia the next morning at 7:15 (losing one hour, since Brasilia in an hour ahead), so it almost exactly overlapped normal sleep time. I slept some, but not too much. But since today was a travel day, I didn’t have to go into work and had a chance to get some rest.

My house is nice with a big back yard.  There are a few little good details. For example, some of the outlets are wired for 110, which means I could safely run American appliance. This is less crucial, since I currently to not have any American appliances, but it is nice to know it is there. The place comes with a microwave, but no dishwasher, which will be a bit of a problem. I am not fond of doing dishes and, besides, they are never as clean as the dishwasher makes them.

The neighborhood is very pleasant, as you can see from the pictures. All the things you see are within easy walking distance. It is also a safe area, since lots of important politicians live here about. We are protected by a guard both at the entrance to our area, which is also bounded in by Paranoá Lake, usually just called Lago Sul.  I took most of the pictures as I walked along a running trail that literally goes right past my house down to the lake and back up the other side. It seems to be around two and a half kilometers round trip. This is less than I usually do, so I figure I can run to one end then turn around and do it backwards, this will get me to five kilometers, about three miles, which is good enough for the routine runs.  I am not far from some larger parks, so there is ample room for longer runs.

The city is much as I remember it, although there are some very impressive new buildings and lots more cars.  The cars are also much better. When we were here twenty-six years ago, there were lots of Volkswagen beetles, locally produced and called Fuscas. They seemed to have a propensity for flip over, much like a real-life beetle, and start on fire. It is good that they are gone. Biking may be a problem. Although there is not much traffic, the roads are narrow and built specifically to facilitate non-stop driving, so there are lots of ramps and turn around, and almost no left turns. These things make it hard for a bike.  I saw some people riding and you can see there is a bike trail on the picture below. It doesn’t go everywhere and also notice the drive casually violating it. I will figure something out.

Brasilia was created for the car and still has not compromised very much with the fact that many people around here still do not have cars and others might prefer to walk sometimes. If you are on foot and want to cross the road, you have to wait by the roadside and then run across when there is a break in traffic. The city was designed in the 1950s, when architects and planners were still infected with that socialist planning paradox of flattening and specialization. Each area of the city was designed for a particular activity. There are residential areas, shopping areas, recreation areas, business areas, government areas etc.  You are supposed to drive from one specialty areas to the other. 

This kind of zoning was popular in the middle of the last century. We suffered from it in the U.S. too.  It is the logic that gave us all those housing projects that became such problems.  It makes some logical sense to concentrate activities, but it goes against human nature. Most of us do not compartmentalize our lives that way. As I wrote above, it as part of that early-middle 2oth Century belief in planning and perfecting human beings, even if they didn’t like it. Most people really don’t want to be “perfected” & fortunately, human nature has modified the plans, hence my running trail pushing through the residential area and restaurant/shopping that I can walk to, even if I have to make a run for it across the road.  

Cities require some planning, otherwise chaos reigns. There are also many things that must be done in a city for the common good. If such things are not planned, they probably won’t get done.  But a city is really a living human organism. Planners can and should set initial plans and condition, but after that a city will grow and develop in ways that no planner or group of planners can anticipate. The combined intelligence and information of the people living in the city will always be greater than that of the planners and administrators. I love history. I revere the past and seek to preserve much of its good. But the past is dead. We, the living, must decide which parts to keep and which to shed. We can revere the past w/o being in thrall to ideas and plans that were conceived when people, by necessity, didn’t know as much about what they called the future than what we know as the past. The best planners can do is help create conditions that allow people to make good decisions for themselves. Planners should do their work and then leave, maybe revel in the fact that the people have so much improved on the original design.

Well, I am finally here in Brazil, the country that some called the perpetual country of the future, but now seems to have created a good present. I look forward to exploring it.

The pictures are all from a walk I took this afternoon. This is my neighborhood, not bad.  Everything is still green.  As the dry season sets in, most of the natural places will dry out and turn brown. The weather will be monotonously pleasant, sunny with cool nights, warm days, lots of sunshine and no rain for the next couple of months. The cool, dry conditions are deceptive. We are still in the tropics and the sun is powerful. I was reminded of that today. Despite my floppy hat and a low dose sunscreen, I got a little burned walking about two and a half hours in the noon-day sun.  I spend a lot of time outside in Virginia and I am moving from Virginia summer to what they call winter down here, but the sun is still stronger.

Above is what the place looks like absent improvements. This part of the country was mostly grass and scrub. The rainforests are farther north and the Atlantic forests were farther east. Those are termite mounds in the picture. I like the improved version better, the one you saw in the other pictures and below. I am not sure what kind of pines those are, but all true pines are introduced here from somewhere else. The lake, BTW, is also man made.

Bloodiest Day in American History

Antietam was the battle that gave Abraham Lincoln the cover to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Without at a significant victory in the field, he reasoned, such a bold proclamation would just seem hollow. The Proclamation changed the character of the war. After it became a struggle to end slavery, the threat of British or French intervention on the side of the Confederacy was removed.  

Historians have argued about who did what right and wrong. Some believe that Union commander George McClellan could have destroyed Robert E. Lee’s army had he acted more aggressively. The battle at Antietam was really not much of a victory. Both sides got badly mauled. But at the end of the day, the Army of the Potomac still held the ground, Robert E. Lee was limping back to Virginia and 23,000 Americans were casualties in the bloodiest day in American history.

The Civil War is the American Iliad. It features heroes with strong characters and personal stories. Many of the participants knew each other and they faced off repeatedly on different battlefields. I think that it is the personalization that has so fascinated Americans for nearly a century and a half. Historians can study diaries and journals; re-enactors can find enough information to “become” individuals.

Re-enactors at Antietam battlefield

The re-enactors are important to history. They maintain a living link past and their attention to detail gives historians a treasury of data. The re-enactors actually wear the clothes, use the gear and carry the weapons.  They can help explain the capacities and challenges of those who struggled.

Espen & I made the trip today. I wanted to spend some individual time with him before I go to Brazil next week.  We had a good chance to talk on the drive and during the walk around the battlefield. I have been to Antietam many times, starting before Espen was born, but it is better with him along.  It was a humid and a hazy day, as you can see from the pictures.

Some battlefields, such as Manassas, have suffered from suburban encroachment. Antietam has not changed since I first came here in 1985.  It is still rural in all directions. The Park Service tries to maintain the landscape more-or-less as it was in 1862. They plant corn in the corn fields of the time and try to keep the woods in woods.  Nevertheless, it is hard to visualize the battle both because it happened over a fairly large space but also because the battle itself was confusing.  Both sides fed more troops in to support their advancing or defending positions w/o much coherence.  At the very end of the day, just when it looked like Robert E. Lee’s line was breaking, AP Hill showed up from Harpers Ferry making the battle inconclusive.

The pictures: Up top is a re-enactor riding past a monument to New York troops. Recall that the states fought as separate units, so there is no U.S. monument. Next is the path to bloody lane, where 2200 Rebs held off 10,000 Union troops, until their position collapsed.  It is called bloody lane because the bodies were literally piled up there. The picture after that shows the lane. The pictures after that show a re-enactor camp, corn field and the Burnside bridge respectively.  Just above is me on the bridge.  There are lots of big sycamores near the creek. And below is Espen with a re-enactor playing a Confederate captain from Virginia. The re-enactors wear the same wool uniforms that the real guys did in 1862. On that hot and humid day, it was more uncomfortable than usual.  The blue at his sleeve shows that he is infantry.  Artillery had red and cavalry yellow.

Below is me buying a watermelon and some sweet corn from a farmer stand. 

Science Changes

State Department, in its wisdom & generosity, is allowing me to take a two week course on environment.  I am learning lots of new things, reviewing even more and updating my outdated conceptions.  The last of these things may be the most useful.  As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”    Anyway, it is fun and I believe it will be useful to my work in Brazil, where environment is a big part of our bilateral engagement.

Today we got an afternoon field trip to the Smithsonian.  I have been there many times before, but never in the back room.   Less than 1% of the Smithsonian’s collections are on display.  The rest are filed away, available for study.  The Smithsonian’s mission is to increase and disseminate knowledge.   The museum part is only a part of a much bigger whole.

One of the curators explained the importance of the physical specimen.  Of course, we could take pictures and all the measurements and we would have everything we need … today.   But what about the future?  One of the most powerful tools for understanding nature today is DNA analysis.  When many of these birds were collected, nobody has any idea about DNA.  It would not  – could not – have been recorded.  That information would have been unavailable.   We don’t know what sorts of tests will be available in the future.  We should not bind the future to our backward techniques any more than we would want to be tied to the techniques of the Victorian Era. We should give the future the same sorts of opportunities our predecessors gave us.

Science is dynamic.  Many of the things I learned as a kid are just plain wrong.  DNA is redrawing family trees and making us think about evolution in very different ways.  Some relationships were not clear from looking birds or animals. Other things that seemed related were not.

Of course, we should be humbled by this.  If “their” science, i.e. the science of the recent past, could be so wrong, how do we know ours is going to stand up any better?   Maybe future scientists will discover something as revolutionary as DNA and as mysterious to us as DNA would have been in Darwin’s day.  We are not stupid and neither were our ancestors.  But we all are always ignorant in many ways.  

We can never give up.  Mark Twain was right about knowing.  But maybe we should also quote TS Eliot, from “The Wasteland” I think it applies to science.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

It is getting harder to collect and advance science.  Many countries now object to collecting and some fear that genetic material will be misused or they will somehow be cheated. This is anti-science.  When you get knowledge, the total available knowledge expands. Nobody loses.  Everybody wins, unless we cease from exploration.

Forest Pictures – Continued

A few more pictures from the farm visits.

Above is the CP forest road to SR 623. Below are some of the blackberry brambles. A few years ago they formed thickets all over the place. Now they are being shaded out on much of the land.

Below is the pool near the sycamore. We put in some rocks to stop the erosion. It used to be obscured by multiflora rose. I cut a bunch of them out, but most of the job was done by the shade of the growing trees. 

Below shows ferns, which are becoming more common as the trees shade more of the forest floor. 

Below is my American chestnut. I planted two seeds. One came up. 

Lost Like Tears in the Rain

Foreign Service Officers get to experience more transitions than most people.  We go to different countries, do different things, speak different languages and in some ways even have different personas.  It is no surprise that some people refer to them as “incarnations.”  Each transformation seems more comprehensive or more important than the others, but from the longer perspective they don’t seem as discontinuous.  

I am in the cleaning up and throwing away stage of this transition. It is a slow process because many things cause pause and stimulate introspection. Today I dug out a bunch of green pocket-notebooks, where I had taken notes and recorded impressions from my first weeks in Iraq until now. What should I do with them? Do I throw them out or save them? I have too much stuff, have written too many words.  I feel the compulsion to write “history” but even I am unlikely ever to read it with any meaning.

The ephemeral nature of life is weighing on me just now. My history and observations are ephemeral.  My blogging gives me the illusion of eminence. I read that there are more blogs than there are people in the earth.  Most are not active, but that gives an idea of the scope.  One more disappears like tears in the rain.  So why write? Because this is one of the things I do. 

This is not a useless “because it is there” rationalization. I believe you have to go through the motions and duties of life.  The meaning lies in the activity itself as much as, maybe more than, the putative effects. The accomplishment of our activities is what creates joy and fulfillment. I have always written journals. Now some of that goes to the blog.  What it has accomplished in the great scheme of things I don’t know.  But it made me a better and more joyful person. My question in almost all parts of life is “So, what do I do?” You can often know what to do before you can understand the reasons and sometimes if you do the right things, the reasons follow.

I have never been very religious, but I believe in transcendent truth. There are many ways to truth. Religion is a road for some people. I love the idea of Jesus. I have read the Bible and still do. I know the words to the old hymns and they inspire me. These are good to help find the way to truth & right action, but religion is not the road I can travel.  I cannot base my faith on words, no matter how beautiful, true or good. I usually know what to do, even when the explanations are difficult.

Mysterious experiences are not part of my daily thoughts, but I have a big one. Some people think I am nuts when I tell the story, but I will tell it anyway with the caveat that my words cannot describe the feeling. My father’s death affected me profoundly and grieved until I had a strange dream. In my dream I glimpsed a transcendent reality, an eternal now.  Everybody, yesterday, today and tomorrow was there and I knew them all. I cannot explain much better, but even after more than ten years this feeling lingers and comforts me.

My title comes from an old science fiction movie called “Blade Runner”. A character, who had been a ruthless villain is about to die.  He recalls his unique & fantastic experiences and laments that all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.  It is all accompanied by the evocative music of Vangelis.  Watch the scene at the link above. You could interpret it as a lamentation on the futility of life.  I do not. I always found the scene vaguely uplifting. My dream gave me an answer to the words at least.  Are tears in the rain lost? They are certainly small in comparison to the mass of rain water, but are they truly insignificant?  Aren’t they really just returning to their “home” or did they ever really leave? Didn’t they always remain part? All the water in the world is always part of the water system. I am content with my own answers to the questions themselves and to the wider ones they imply. And I know what to do.  

Life is changing for me again. I have been doing this part long enough and it is time to do something else. Brazil will be a new adventure with new ideas. It will change but stay the same. I look for meaning in the paradox.

The picture up top has nothing to do with the posting. It is my last left from my tree farm visit. It shows the truck up near the first wildlife plot. Alex has the truck now. Maybe he will let me use it when I need it. 

Farewell Forest For Now

Alex & I went down to the farms today.  It may be my last time in a long time. There was not much I needed to do. I cut down some of the brush that was shading my bald cypress. We are just a little north & east of the natural range of the bald cypress.  I figure if we have climate change, we will be right in the middle.  Since a cypress can live a couple hundred years, it will spend most of its life in that future.  Above are a row of volunteer sycamore trees.  I trimmed out the extra ones as well as the box elder that were among them. Below is my bald cypress, which is across the little road from those sycamores.  This area is not productive from the forestry point of view, but I am making it aesthetically more what I like.

The meadows are overgrown with yarrow & the white flowering plants are towering over and displacing my clover.  Yarrow is supposed to be a medicinal herb and is supposed to cure toothaches and be a disinfectant for cuts.  I don’t dislike the yarrow, but I liked my clover better.  It has been a little dry lately, which seems to favor the yarrow.   Larry Walker and the hunt club planted some wildlife mixture on the top plot.  It seems to have a variety of things, including at least some corn, sunflower and soy.  Below is the corn-sunflower-soy plot and below that is my overgrown yarrow plow and at the end is the same plot last year about this time.  You can see the whole posting at this link.

We established the plots in 2007.  There was still a lot of clover last year.  Actually, there is still a lot of clover now, but it is under the other stuff.  In any case, what we have is better than what we had.  The wildlife plots are on the old loading decks, used for the harvests.  The soil was compressed and very unattractive.  The meadows now are fairly self-sustaining, although not always in clover.  I still have a little trouble with the tree of heaven.  I am a little worried that the invasive plants will invade while I am in Brazil.  They are always waiting their chance.

There have been many changes on the farm.  The canopies are closing and as it gets shadier, we have a more open forest. Above is my beech forest, one of my favorite places on the farm.  Below is the creek bed. The creek moved a little in the recent rains.

The Freeman tract is doing well. Undergrowth is already starting to grow. The trees were very close together before the harvest-thinning, so most things were shaded out before. Beyond that, my soils are not really good.  This part of Virginia has very old soils. They did not benefit from the recent glaciation that improved some of the soils in the Midwest. And they were made worse by the cultivation of tobacco & cotton when people didn’t really understand principles of crop rotation. That means much of the land is not very good for crops, which is why it is under pine trees today. I am trying to improve my soils with the clover and biosolids, but there is a long way to go. Below is the newly thinned pines, planted in 1996, with Alex under them for a size comparison.  They grow fast. Now that they are thinned, they will grow even faster.

Summer Time

The water jets outside Safeway near the Waterfront Metro are a good idea. When I first saw them, I didn’t really understand their probable use. Today was a hot day and the local kids figured it out.  The neighborhood really has improved.  It is lively but still nice.

Below are pictures of Baltimore that Mariza took from her window.  We bought her a Cannon camera for her birthday. It works well.  I got one for my birthday too. 

Greg Richard: Virginia Tree Farmer of the Year 2011

This is the article I wrote for “Virginia Forests”.You have to make a steep climb on Richard Road to get to Greg Richard’s tree farm near Star Tannery. Walking around his 365 acre farm, you realize that the steep grades and the rocky soils define the land’s management.   Trees find ways to grow among the rocks, but human activities like planting, harvesting and general silvaculture are hard. This didn’t stop Greg and consulting forester Frank Sherwood from doing the right things over several decades.

Planning for the future requires understanding what came before, the history of the land. Greg’s land has a story common in the Virginia hills. Much of the natural cover was removed in the 19th Century to feed local furnaces, forges and tanneries. Trees had grown back by the early 20th Century but then the Appalachian forests suffered from the chestnut blight that created thickets of standing dead wood. Chestnuts still sprout from roots and stumps and sometimes grow big enough to produce nuts before the blight get them. Greg’s land still features a few chestnuts like this, the echo of past glory, and Greg carries a walking stick from one of the chestnut shoots.

On this particular tract, the low point came in 1933, when a fire destroyed most of the cover again. The situation created by that disaster nearly eighty years ago are the ones Greg is working with today.  The trees came in too thick for the soil and water available.  These conditions were made worse by a high grading harvest in the 1960s.  Although Greg and his father Harry performed good forestry practices from the start, good forestry practices really got rolling after the Richard property was certified as a tree farm by the ATFS in 1981.  Greg and Frank Sherwood wrote and implemented a comprehensive plan that included regular thinning and stand improvements.  

Wildlife is more important than in wood and pulp production to Greg Richard and he does not try to maximize profits gained from sales of wood and pulp. This is evident how he manages his property.   Greg clear cut some acreage on the gentler slopes replanted with loblolly pine.  The plantation is small enough for Greg to do things himself, like use a backpack spray to control hardwoods.  Greg saw the silver lining in a recent utility decision to widen its right of way that crosses Greg’s property.  He was not pleased to have more of his land under the power lines and taken out of forest, but he made a virtue out of necessity by establishing warm season grasses and soft edges where the surrounding forests meet the vegetation under the lines. The open areas under the lines also feature small dew ponds, which provide habitat for reptiles and amphibians, as well as enhancing the land for birds and mammals.  Most of the rest of the property is covered with secondary oak forest of relatively low quality because of soil quality and the unfortunate history of the high grading in generations past. Over time the oak was being replaced by more shade tolerant red maple. This was not a welcome development from the forestry point of view. Greg and Frank set out to change that by removing many of the inferior trees and creating openings that let in enough sunlight for oak regeneration.

Greg knows that it took a lifetime for the forest to get to be the way it is today and he accepts that it will take a lifetime to make it right.  The joy of forestry comes from being part that will last a long time, maybe many lifetimes.  Greg is pleased that his daughter is starting to take more interest in the land and contours of its changing face. All of us who plant trees and care for forests are aware that much of our work will be for the generations that follow.  And sometimes it takes the next generation a while to come to their own understanding of what we have done and of their place.

This is how it happened with Greg.  Although the core of the property is his old family place, Greg did not spend his life with forestry on the land he now owns.  Most of his adult life, most of Greg’s career was spent doing remodeling and construction in and around College Park, Maryland.  Greg ran his own firm called National Home Improvement.  He retired from his active business in 2004, although he still does some work for a few old customers who trust his work.   As with forestry, Greg was in it for the long haul.  Now he has more time to devote to forestry.

People who love their land, landowners like Greg, see their property not as it is now but as it will be.  The land is a place of aspiration.  I enjoyed sharing Greg’s aspirations as we walked his land.  He can see the pines he recently established as the mature pine forest that will cover someday cover the lower slopes.  He has the vision to see that his small trees will be the big oaks crowning the hills.  And he can understand the wildlife corridors that will tie all the parts of his property into a sustainable and integrated whole.   We do our duty if we leave our land better than we found it.  Greg has done his part. 
The Virginia Tree Farm Committee congratulates Greg Richard for doing the things and meriting the title of Virginia Tree Farmer of the Year in 2011; we also congratulate Frank Sherwood for helping know what to do. 

Pictures:  Top show Greg Richard and his tree farm sign.  Next is wildlife ponds. They are rain fed. Richard and his father established them decades ago.  Following is a American chestnut husk, showing that the chestnut sprouts still produce seeds more than a century after the blight arrived in North America.  The next picture shows the power lines that cross the property. It also shows the rocky nature of the soil. This limits the type of forests that can be established on the land and virtually precludes most forms of crop agriculture.  Below that is the natural regeneration. This is what the forest looks like if you do nothing.  The last picture is Greg with an American chestnut sprout. They grow from the roots and get about that big before the blight gets them again.