Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Redlining Raptors

When I was growing up in central Connecticut there were no raptors. They were hunted by farmers in the first part of the 20th century, and in the 1950's, 60's and 70's widespread use of pesticides such as DDT created eggshell thinning and virtually eliminated species reproduction.
But now they are back. We see them every day on streetlamps on the sides of highways, circling over the neighborhood, or even munching on pigeons and squirrels in our yard.

But there still is one place where they have not yet appeared.

Hawks are not allowed
on the playground at recess -
no preying at school.

Monday, November 22, 2010


I once worked for a guy who liked to speak in metaphors -- especially when he was giving bad news.

One time he was being hectored about the lack of progress we were making on a very low-priority piece of work that happened to be the kvetch's pet project.

"Exactly when can I expect to see this task completed?"

"The leaves will come. And the leaves will go. And the leaves will come again." my manager responded. There was a clearly implied "and so on".

For years I thought that answer was the perfect definition of "never". I also believed the passage of time was linear. That, as Saint Augustine said, "human experience is a one-way journey from Genesis to Judgment, regardless of any recurring patterns or cycles in nature."

However not everyone believes that time marches in even increments along a straight line.

Native Americans, Australian aborigines and others conceive of time as circular -- a repetitive process that nonetheless creates infinite possibilities and unique situations and results. Stories and sentences frequently circle back on themselves, with repetition used to arrive back at the same point in time from which the speaker started. Some languages use the same word to mean both "soon" and "recent".

Leslie Marmon Silko, a Native American author, says:

The Pueblo people and the indigenous people of the Americas see time as round, not as a long linear string. If time is round, if time is an ocean, then something that happened 500 years ago may be quite immediate and real, whereas something inconsequential that happened an hour ago could be far away.

I had heard about this non-sequential view of time. It even seemed kind of cool in a New Agey kind of way. But I never could really understand what it could possibly mean. Then Mars and I became the owners of a house on a piece of property bordered by several deciduous trees.

We moved into our new abode in the spring, after the leaves had come. Seven months later they went from the branches to the front lawn. Then they went (with lots of effort) from the front lawn to the curb. And then they went into the bowels of our town's long-funneled, truck-mounted, leaf collection machinery (aka Mr. Snuffleupagus).

About one week and two swirling windstorms later, they came again.

And again they went -- this time into the mulching blade of my gasoline-powered lawn mower.

And again they came -- and again -- et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Ultimately the supply of leafage dwindled down to a precious few at the same time that my interest in de-leafing also ran out. The Sisyphean ritual was over. Until the next autumn came. And the one after that,....

But this fall season, thirty-plus years later, I actually thought for a moment that the cycle had been broken.

My perception of the situation was probably warped because I got an earlier than usual start on the rake-to-the-curb routine. The weather was warm, time was available, the leaves were down, and my energy was up. As a result the first shipment of foliage was delivered to the roadside a week or so before the earliest possible scheduled pickup date. Because of this, when the leaves came again (as they did two days later), I felt as if I was merely doing minimal mop-ups - even though I actually partook in four, full-blown, full-lawn cleanups before the cycle ceased and Snuffleupagus did its thing.

The lawn was then clear for several days. But within a week there was once again sufficient leaf cover to warrant a walkabout with the mulching mower. Now, almost fourteen days later, it once again is time to fire up either the calorie-burning rake or the carbon-emitting compost-creator for one more spin around my property.

Then, the leaves will come. And the leaves will go. And the leaves will come again. But hopefully not for at least twelve months.

Up to the nineteenth century both Science and Philosophy agreed with me that time is linear.

However, in the twentieth century, Gödel and others discovered solutions to the equations of Einstein's general theory of relativity that allowed closed loops of proper time...[which would] allow you to go forward continuously in time until you arrive back into your past. You will become your younger self in the future. Time Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

In other words, the passage of time could be circular.

[But] As far as we can tell today, our universe does not exemplify any of these solutions to Einstein's equations. (ibid)

Except of course for those of us with deciduous trees.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Oxymoron of the Day

Highway sign seen on a bridge crossing the Connecticut River:

Not Allowed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Couldn't Care Less

"Tanka" is a Japanese poetry form, very much like haiku, except it's a little longer with a per-line syllable scheme of 5-7-5-7-7. The following poem probably bends that rule just a little.

But first, here is my inspiration.

"George Bush doesn't care about black people" averred Kanye West on live TV during a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser.

"I faced a lot of criticism as President. I didn't like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all time low," Bush recently told TV interviewer Matt Lauer.

"I would tell George Bush, in my moment of frustration, I didn't have the grounds to call him a racist," he said. "But I believe that, in a situation of high emotion like that, we as human beings don't always choose the right words." West responded.

Bush said he "appreciates" the rapper's apology and forgives him. He does, however, reiterate that West's comments troubled him, especially because "nobody wants to be called a racist if, in your heart, you believe in equality of race."

I don't care about,
what those I don't care about
say they care about
those, that they don't care about.
Really, I just do not care.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Examined Life

It was another backyard massacre.

But you will just have to take my written word for it this time. There are no photographs. In the interest of documentary journalistic integrity Mars and I chose not to take them.

It was around twelve PM on Día de los Muertos. We had just returned home from our morning chores and decided to take a quick tour of our estate to see if any tricks had been perpetrated against our property by the prior evenings costumed mendicants.

There was no damage to the pumpkins in the area leading up to and around our walk-thru candy window so we started to stroll into our backyard (which given the sideways positioning of our home relative to its lot is actually our upper side yard).

The barbeque was in tact. But just beyond the Weber kettle, in the noontime shadow of an eight-foot tall bush, was a shape that did not belong there -- the identity of which I could not immediately decipher.

I stopped and was in the process of telling Mars to do the same when the unknown image
became clear to my brain.

"It's a hawk."

It was a young, smallish raptor -- dark gray and white. And it was focused intently the dismemberment of a similarly colored pigeon, the plucked feathers of which formed a white, downy altar for the sacrifice.

It saw us and hopped a few feet away leaving its kill at the crime scene. We retreated into the house to get Mars' camera.

The hawk returned before we did and was now struggling to lift its heavier-than-expected prey up off the ground in order to fly away to a less crowded dining area. It managed, with great effort, to get about fifteen yards across the grass and into the moderately sheltered thicket of bushes and short trees that surround our compost bins.

Mars was reluctant to pursue the picture but I asked for the camera and stalked carefully up to the small copse d'compost.

I saw neither hide nor hair of the victor or its victim. But I did notice two instances of rustling brush and bending branches moving away from the woodlot and into our autumn yellow-and-green hosta bed.

It was then that Mars expressed her concern for the frustrated falcon's futile efforts to make a getaway, and her belief that my incipient paparazzi-ing was altering the naturalness of the situation.

It was an argument that I understood quickly and with which I was in complete agreement -- particularly since my continued cinematic activities would do absolutely nothing to (a) help the pigeon who was irredeemably deceased or (b) enhance the harried harrier's gustatory experience.

Over the years we have been on several whale watches and each time I have wondered if we offshore interlopers actually were observing the natural behavior of these large marine mammals, or instead their unnatural learned reactions to being spied on.

In Physics this is known as the "Observer Effect" - " changes that the act of observation will make on the phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. A commonplace example is checking the pressure in an automobile tire; this is difficult to do without letting out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. This effect can be observed in many domains of physics."

And I would suspect also in whales and falcons.

Psychologists likewise talk about the "Hawthorne Effect" -- "whereby subjects improve or modify an aspect of their behavior being experimentally measured simply in response to the fact that they are being studied, not in response to any particular experimental manipulation.

"The term was coined in 1950 by Henry A. Landsberger when analysing older experiments from 1924-1932 at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago). Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to see if its workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light. The workers' productivity seemed to improve when changes were made and slumped when the study was concluded. It was suggested that the productivity gain was due to the motivational effect of the interest being shown in them. Thus the term is used to identify any type of short-lived increase in productivity."

But our backyard observation seemed to be having an "Anti-Hawthorne Effect", i.e. stage fright.
So, concerned about upsetting the balance of nature, we put the camera aside and went inside to have our own less violent and but equally carnivorous lunches.

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Plato quotes Socrates as saying at his trial. A true philosopher would rather die than give up philosophy.

"The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the life too closely examined may not be lived at all," rejoined Mark Twain hundreds of years later.

It is a much easier, and a lot more fun, to be the watcher rather than the watch-ee.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

An Annual Occurrence

First overnight frost,
gold cascading wall of sound -
Gingko avalanche.