Categories
Climate change Gardening Nature ruminations

Relating to natural life today

In the last month I took a family vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains and read two novels about logging: Ron Rash’s Serena and Annie Proulx’s massive Barkskins. Here are some resulting thoughts about trees, creatures, and the people who inhabit their world.

The natural world in America is nothing like what it was

We fall into the trap of thinking that climate change is unprecedented in its destruction of the natural world. But it has a clear predecessor in the deforestation of the period c. 1600-1960, documented in Barkskins, during which nearly every tree in America was cut down, every forest razed, and most wildlife extirpated. The first two sections of Barkskins start with Europeans trapping all of the beavers, minks, and martens in the northeast. Only after the furs are gone do they move onto logging.

In Serena, the logging barons clear-cut the Smokies before selling the land to the government for a national park. Serena is fiction, but this part of the story is true. In the Smokies, we hiked to Avent Cabin, a structure built around 1850. It contains a picture showing its setting around 1920, when it sat in a clearing: all of the surrounding trees had been logged. Now the cabin is again back in the woods, as the regrown trees approach a century of age.

Of course, letting the land go wild again does not recreate the complex webs of life that existed before Europeans arrived. Keystone species like the American chestnut and the passenger pigeon are extinct and megafauna like moose and bear – characters in both novels – have limited presences. The city nature areas and state parks I visit are a sad joke compared to what they held five hundred years ago. At the end of Barkskins, a character muses about “dark diversity,” the species whose absences from an ecosystem can be measured. There’s a lot of that here.

Both novels do a good job painting the picture of natural splendor that was destroyed forever. As a Michigan resident, I particularly appreciated the Breitsprechers’ trip to survey the endless, towering white pines of this state. My family has stopped at Hartwick Pines State Park on our way up north, a tiny postage stamp of old-growth forest that escaped logging. It’s the closest we can get to experiencing what was once here.

Despite being once despoiled, the trees and wildlife in the Smokies were still beautiful by modern standards. This lifted my spirits. There’s something encouraging about the fact that we’re a hundred years past the low point for trees in the Smokies and moving in the right direction. When it comes to logging, at least.

Categories
Life events ruminations

Fractions of a Lifetime

Last week I turned 39 years old. A few people pointed out that next year will be the big four-oh, but I see more significance in this birthday as a milestone delineating the portions of my time on earth.

Halves: if I have a typical lifespan, this moment is just about the halfway point of my life! That striking observation has me taking stock of things.

I hesitated to write this as many of my friends reading this are older than me and it implies that their lives are mostly over. But me not writing it doesn’t change that. It feels right to me to acknowledge the finitude and preciousness of life, whatever age one is.

Thirds: this accounting neatly renders my life into three acts of twenty-six years each. Which works out perfectly in my case: I had my first child at 26 years old and my youngest child will become a legal adult when I’m 52.

That makes a third of my life without children; a third of my life as a parent of young, at-home children; and a third of my life with adult children. This midpoint of my life is also the halfway mark of me having children at home.

Quarters: a quarter of this life would be nineteen-and-a-half years. That interval coincides with the two biggest lifestyle changes I’ve made, both related to diet.

Categories
Writing

This year it’s NaNoEdMo

A year ago I was working on my outline for National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. And the following month I completed the challenge, writing 50k words. Progress slowed after that, but I finished the first draft of my book around May of this year. It currently clocks in at 98,354 words, longer than I’d expected.

And many of those words have got to go. No one has read my draft yet because it needs a thorough edit. At this stage the big to-dos are to fill in placeholders (“it’s in [PLACE]”, says one character to another) and slice out crud that makes the book drag.

I haven’t been prioritizing that editing. Which then bums me out because if you write a book and no one reads it does it make a sound? And while I seek to finish the thing, it’s not a chore. I enjoy returning to that fictional world.

The maples have mostly shed their leaves, while the oaks remain mostly clad. It’s NaNoWriMo time once more. I’m thinking I will participate on my own terms. This year’s challenge will be:

  • Work on the book at least a little every day
  • Get the draft to a point where it’s ready to share with an alpha reader on Dec. 1. Fill in all the placeholders and clean up as much of the rest as I can.

I have been developing an outline for another story. This one is a science-based thriller, Jurassic Park vibes but part of a tech billionaire’s sinister plot. All while celebrating one of evolution’s most incredible feats. I think it would be significantly easier to write, because (a) I’ve done it once before (b) it’s a little more basic, with more cliffhangers and less character development.

But that’ll have to wait until I make more progress with Book 1. Maybe I’ll take a crack at the thriller for NaNoWriMo 2023, if all works out.

Categories
ruminations Someday

Finite time for unlimited spring fun

I am reading (like many people) Four Thousand Weeks. That and other similar resources have sharpened my awareness of how little time we have when compared to all the things we could do.

That feeling is especially acute right now, in March. This is when some of my favorite seasonal events happen:

I’ve done all of those things at various times in the past. Never all in the same year, tellingly. Maybe it’s the pull of the longer days and warmer weather that has me wanting to embrace all of these March traditions at once.

Categories
Nature ruminations

Welcome, Brood X Cicadas

Next month, if all goes well, Ann Arbor will be overrun by millions of Magicicada septendecim, the seventeen-year cicada. I am giddy with anticipation.

Why am I so excited? I think the cicadas are arriving at just the right moment in my life, in terms of both time and biophilia.

The timing is fortunate. At 3, 6, and 10 years old, my kids will be old enough to appreciate the insects and still young enough to feel wonder. My oldest is already on board: she amassed a collection of cicada shells from more regular “annual” cicadas that emerged in recent years. The next time these cicadas emerge, my kids will be grown, and I may be an empty nester. My oldest will be the age I was when she was born.

I’ve experienced periodical cicadas twice so far, in both cases Brood XIII in Chicago. I was 6 in 1990 and vaguely remember the insects’ ubiquitous noise and bodies. When that brood resurfaced in 2007, I was 23, and have no memories of cicadas from that year. I lived in a 24th-floor apartment in downtown Chicago – maybe there was too much concrete to support any cicadas. I remember my friend Boyu, who was working in the western Chicago suburbs over the summer, telling stories of brushing his car off before getting in and still ending up with cicadas inside. But for the timing to work, I think that would have been stragglers emerging off-year in 2003, which I would have missed in the city.

Now the reverse is true: I’m in the right part of the state for this year’s Brood X emergence. Much of Michigan will miss the cicadas, but Ann Arbor should be as reliable a place as any to experience them.

This will be my third visit with periodical cicadas. Brood X will next emerge in 2038 (I’ll be 54), 2055 (71), and 2072 (88, if I last that long). After this summer, half of my cicada seasons will be behind me.

The cicadas are also coming at the right time for me to appreciate them. In the last year or two I’ve become more appreciative of, knowledgeable of, in love with the natural world. I’m learning about animals, trees, and as much of life on this wondrous planet as I can, cultivating my biophilia. It blew my mind to learn about oak trees evolving to have mast years, where in some years they sync up and together produce an unusually-large crop of acorns to overwhelm predators. Periodical cicadas have evolved a similar mechanism of using staggered timing to their advantage: when they emerge in such great numbers, predators can’t eat them all.

What an incredible feat of evolution, to lie in wait for seventeen years and emerge in concert! I find that outcome especially neat given that at this point, they only reproduce as often as humans do. When the parents of this year’s Brood X cicadas walked the earth, George W. Bush was still president. They wait so long for just a short couple of months above ground. It reminds me of tree time or rock time, timescales slower than our human experience. This strategy has been slowly optimized over millions of years. What to me is a rare, long-awaited, blog-worthy event is just the next repetition of their experiment.

I feel lucky to be living in the right place and right moment for this event. It’s a six-in-a-lifetime occurrence and I don’t even have to leave my neighborhood to enjoy it. This weekend, I’ll pick up a book on cicadas from the library to prepare myself, and look forward to May and June. May this brood be as thick and deafening as ever.

Categories
DIY How-to Making

Building a compost bin out of pallets

The project: My mother-in-law had long expressed interest in composting her food scraps, but didn’t care for the plastic bins available for purchase. I’d been interested in building such a bin by reusing salvaged lumber, mostly discarded wood pallets. This presented a fun challenge: construct a compost bin that satisfied her aesthetic requirements and followed my principles of reuse.

It turned out well: it’s attractive (in a rustic way) and functional, though took longer to build than I expected. Breaking down pallets was a big chunk of that time overage: they were free in monetary cost but not in the time they took to process.

After weathering its first winter

Design: I built it probably a little too big, 32″ L x 30″ W x 29″ H. Compost bins have to solve for the problem of emptying the finished compost (after a year or so) while leaving in place any recently-discarded food. In bins like this, which will be emptied via a not-yet-installed door in the bottom of the side (see below), that separation is achieved by the depth of the pile. The bottom of the pile, with older finished compost, is no longer turned, while the fresher, unfinished material rests on top. In a narrower bin, the walls support layers of material such that the top layers can be left in place while the bottom is scraped out. This bin may be too big to neatly do that. Perhaps the over-sizing just means it can go a few years between emptying.