Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Pleasures and Pains of Sweat Equity

This should be a nice moment. The evening before the concrete is poured. All the excavation's done, all the leveling. In the morning the truck comes in and pours 3.5 cubic meters of the good stuff and then we'll level and trowel off. The columns will be barn board and clapboards and maybe someday if we sell up, bored and miserable with our lives, we'll slap on the fake cement asbestos look alike to match the original 1950s asbestos siding which is like apocalypse proof. The doors I'm looking forward to. They'll be 3 foot each, hand mortised and tenoned and paneled patio doors meeting in the middle. And then I can dream about which boat to build.

A book my wife checked out from the library for me sums up the experience rather rosily and eloquently.
"The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgement of reality, where one's failures and shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous 'self-esteem' that educators would impart to students as though by magic."

Shop Class as Soulcraft; An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Mathew B. Crawford.

So of course this is not boasting. And I didn't just spend the entire afternoon trying to get my Husqvarna commercial walk behind mower to run. I ended up disassembling the deck from the engine so I could carry it uphill to the trailer to take it in to the shop. Nothing quiet and easy about me now. I'm ready for a beer and a shower and am prone to feelings of self-pity.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

If Trees Voted

The Senate gave up on efforts to pass a comprehensive energy bill designed to begin a switch away from fossil fuels today, leading me and surely even the eternally optimistic Tom Friedman to question again whether our democracy is equipped to meet 21st century global challenges. The Democrats were not able to muster enough votes to move the bill to the floor, fearing Republicans would point to the measure in the upcoming midterm elections as proof of insensitivity to the needs of ordinary Americans.

Once again, the complexities of the issue have been reduced to the short term dictates of the power game in Washington, and the logic of sustainability and the long term interests of our country have not been able to pierce the miasma of misinformation, rapacious greed and sheer shortsightedness promoted by the Republican party. The situation is untenable, but a strange solace is that it hasn't changed in over a decade, since the Clinton/Gore administration first floated the idea of a BTU tax, which in its elegance and its reliance on basic market forces to do the heavy lifting of engineering us away from carbon poisoning the atmosphere even outdid the idea of a cap and trade system.

The meekness and timidity of the Democrats, reneging on a central plank of the Obama campaign, cannot be excused. It will hurt them in the fall as environmentalists and even uninitiated voters who would have been impressed by basic gumption and a stand on principle will now fail to be motivated to support the vote counters who could not see beyond their plush offices.

What now? One of the faults of this polarized, largely blind populace is a lack of organization and education on this direly important topic. Entire doctoral theses have probably been written, (and if they haven't, here's a good idea for somebody) on why the Europeans are so far ahead of us in supporting the idea of controlling the amount of carbon we are dumping in the air by becoming more energy efficient and switching away from fossil fuels as soon as we can. But having lived in Europe, I can tell you that one difference is a wide-spread, diverse and loud non-profit sector, an organized citizenry, that has banged the drum on climate change and global warming from villages and cities across the Old World for many years. We have nothing like that here, but there is one new group, that is impressive in its energy and the wealth of interesting campaign ideas they are putting out there. Things like trying to get solar panels installed in the White House might seem like small potatoes, but it is from these beginnings that a critical mass of support for positive change might finally come.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Water and Oil

Last night the rain finally broke after a few long weeks of hot, dry weather. I slept well, listening to the water in the trees and gurgling down the gutter. When I look at the radar map on the weather site, it's like watching magic, the way the green clouds pop up along the ridge of the Green mountains, or in the Tennessee valley, and drift, turn yellow and thunderous, and then disappear, only to reappear again a hundred miles away. You have to wonder at the awesomely random logic that drives the system. We were up in the Whites hiking on our 20th wedding anniversary this week, and to see the power of the water as it comes out of the Franconia Notch at the height of the dry spell, the white, glacially cold water swirling deep into the carved basins or pounding in the cascades off the mountains, made me wonder at the brilliance and generosity of the planet's basic functionality. That's what water does in the summer, it softens any pessimism, renews our sense that life goes on.

Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil continues to gush, a reminder of the insanity of this post-industrial, consumer-driven, resource ravaging way we conduct ourselves. Blame goes all around of course. Anger is gushing as well, and there seems no way Obama can get on top of it, or ahead of any curves on the polls. It's like dealing with children, a family that lets important decisions get made on the basis of the wishes of the youngest, most irresponsible, whimsical of its members, having our political future hang in the balance of polls where the questions asked test our tolerance of stupidity, like "do you think Obama's economic policies are helping you personally?"

So while our politics continue to be mired in the sometimes infantile and counter-productive habits of our messy democratic institutions, in the technological realm our scientists are trying to mimic the habits of nature in order to move into a post-carbon future. Renewable energy, intelligent grids will rely on smart technology to tie consumers and producers together into a decentralized, amorphous system that will look very much like the radar screen image of the rain, popping up and disappearing in some random, higher logic that ultimately benefits everyone.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Deer Fly Season

(Editor's note: After a couple of weeks of computer problems, I'm back up again. Sorry about that.)

There's been no rain for a couple of weeks. The heat is beginning to melt away the
lakes, and the rivers and streams are lying low, black puddles of stillness waiting for the regenerating downpour coming this weekend, according to the forecasts. In the garden, it's beginning to look like late summer, potatoes withering under an early blight, the fault of escapees from last year's crop spreading it. Raspberries have been a bumper crop, and peas have come and mostly gone. It's deer fly season. Tomatoes and corn coming on strong. Garlic is good; apparently Jink agrees.

We went camping up to Lake Umbagog for a few days. It was windy and cold. On the last morning, on the paddle back to the state park where the car was parked, we were visited by a pair of bald eagles, who swooped overhead, checking us out.

My summer building project. I've sold it as a mud room/walk out basement utility room, but really it's going to be the boat building shed. On the right is the sheep barn. Above is the kitchen. The underside of the kitchen floor is slab polystyrene insulation, last year's weatherization thing. You can just make it out. The bottom of the last post, (there were three others) was cut out and it sprang true after probably decades of misalignment. There was never any foundation, and the bottom sill resting on some rocks on the ground got pushed in by runoff, snow melt and fill material coming off the stone retaining wall which I am excited about digging out.