Monday, September 27, 2010

Farm Journal: Who’s Your Daddy?

Lucy went missing last night—and then today Ron found her in the buck pen. 

Lucy just hours old on January 14, 2010.
Our little explorer and scout has consistently led the way for this year’s kids to their next stage of goathood since she was a week old last January.  She “announced” their readiness to join the herd in pasture, she “potty trained” them within their first week since birth, and she taught them how to relate to the water buffalo.  Unfortuantely, this meant that they were standing on the buffs who were lying in the barn or barnyard.  She even stood on the buffs while they were walking, which is an extremely dangerous trick to play since she could fall and get hurt.  Ron thinks she was trying to jump the fence.  Her size allows her to be the consummate escape artist, just as Lil’ Man was last year for the same reason.

With the fall, however, comes mating season and Lucy confirmed it by “leading the way” again. 

This little hottie who Ron thought was too small to mate this year, escaped from the does’ pen and apparently squeezed her way through to the bucks’ pen to cavort with them.  The problem is that only Leonidas was there— and he’s Lucy’s father.  (Tiger is out on loan breeding goats at Anne Cavanaugh’s place.)

This presents some problems genetically as it’s not a good idea to breed father and daughter.

For example, Ron ran a chi square analysis on the genetic possibilities facing us with the assumption that there are deleterious recessive traits.  Lucy has a one quarter chance of bearing kids identical to Koo-Koo, her mother, and a one quarter chance her offspring will pick up her grandfather's traits (Victor Vito, a super buck).  But she also has a 50 percent potential to birth kids with undesirable traits if Leonidas’ genes are passed on (i.e., parrot beak or fish tail teats or small stature).

I saw Lucy this morning and she was resting in the doe pen as close to the bucks as she could be.  She seemed a little under the weather and yet she was her typical phlegmatic self.  The white part of her beautiful coat was soiled—possibly from the bucks spraying her or literally because she took a roll in the hay, so to speak.  She stunk like a buck at this time of year.  Her butt end was swollen.  Was this a sign of penetration? 

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that she will be OK.  More on goat genetics later.

Harvesting Raspberries and Squashes

Actually, I was at the farm to harvest the raspberries and squash plants.  I thought I'd be there for less than an hour but ended up staying three hours.

The abundance of the garden never ceases to amaze me.  Picking fresh raspberries is a particular treat.  Because they are not sprayed, I can eat them right off the bush as I pick one and drop three in my bucket.  Of course, I kept most of them to share with Kurt at home (raspberries are his favorite fruit) and with Ron and Soo, who are just too busy with the new farm these days to pick berries.  My harvest was probably about two pounds—and there are still many more to come.

I’m keen on harvesting as many berries as I can because I don’t want them wasted.  Some of them have withered and dried out.  Fresh, organic raspberries are too good to miss and I have an aversion to wasting food.

The guinea hens that roam the farm really like the berries so I leave the “low hanging fruit” for them.  There is really plenty to go around.  At first, I was hoarding the berries and shooing the hens away.  Then I remembered one of last summer’s lessons:  the insects, fowl, and four-legged wildlife around the farm depend on the garden for food just as we do but that its bounty provides enough for everyone.  (This attitude would not make for a good pesticide or herbicide commercial!)

The squash field is quite overgrown with weeds so in addition to searching through these broadleafed plants, I had to navigate over and around the giant-sized lambs quarters, tall grasses, and the other God-knows-what weeds.  I held my breath that I wouldn’t come across any wildlife because some of the weeds make for good nests, rest stops and hiding places.  I haven’t worried about weeding for the past couple months because I’ve been gone a lot or have been busy with many other things.  The fruits seem to be getting along just fine anyway.  The garden is not the pretty sight it should be but its purpose of growing delicious vegetables remains in tact. 

One thing I recognized with my walk through the squash field was that as I searched for mature squashes, it reminded me of the egg hunts my sister and I conducted on Easter Sunday.  Some eggs were obvious, like in the corner of the room or next to the leg of a chair.  Others were harder to find but they elicited the most joy and excitement when we found them. 

The squashes are propped up on their vines as if they were primping themselves and waiting for someone to find them.  (Fortunately, we haven’t lost many of them to wildlife.)  Their colors are incredibly beautiful and they come in many shapes and sizes depending on the length of time they have been growing.  The giant-sized zucchini are just as good in flavor and freshness as the smaller-sized ones and as with everyone’s garden, there is much more zucchini produced than anyone can eat.  Ron says the goats like the zucchini so I toss the biggest ones into their pen and they usually disappear, oftentimes with some help from the white ducks.  Meanwhile, I’ve grilled the zucchini, put them in mixed vegetable and meat dishes and frozen them for the future. 

The summer squash has been out over the past couple weeks and their rich yellow color makes a fine contrast to their green leaves and vines.  This week the acorn squash turned from their light green to their pick-ready dark green color.  I’m anxious to try one right away!

We got a few cucumbers this year and they were delicious, but the ducks had eaten their tender shoots and thus didn’t leave much for harvest.  Next year, I’ll plant more.  They are very good.  Their freshness has the taste of the earth.

Last year we had butternut squash and pumpkins, which were supreme.  Because we planted so late this year, we were unable to get seeds but that’s the best part about a garden:  there’s always next year.  I plan to grow watermelon, musk melon and cantaloupe, too!
So, in lieu of growing our own squash, I’ve been buying Matt and Kurt Wiley’s squash and it is to die for.  (They are located near Schoolcraft on U Avenue just east of Oakland Drive.)  So sweet.  So orange in color.  You can hardly believe your eyes.  And isn’t that what makes food a totally aesthetic experience?  It tickles your visual, taste, smell and touch senses and if you scream with delight upon eating good tasting fruits and vegetables, you get sound.  All that compost we shoveled from the barn over the past year (and that Ron has applied during many previous years) pays off in taste and in the abundance of the harvest! 

BTW, the Wiley’s also sell tomatoes and they taste like those my Dad used to grow in the 1950s and 60s.  Sweet, succulent, tasty.  So I’ve bought several tomato-seconds by the bucket from Wiley’s—for only $6—and have canned or frozen them for winter eating.  Donna McClurkan gave me a pasta sauce recipe as follows and it has turned out to be a good one, although it is very time-consuming by the time I clean and cut up the tomatoes and then reduce them, like nine hours.  But it is totally worth it for the taste.

The frozen squash, raspberries and pasta sauce have totally taken over my freezer so I’ve had to use the bottom drawer of my sister-in-law’s freezer to keep them.  I am so proud of myself for this new venture this year.  Next year, I’ll freeze more (we need to buy a small freezer!) and learn to can with greater confidence.

Shadow and Leonidas, King of the Spartans

After I finished harvesting the garden, I threw a few humongous zucchinis in the doe pen even though no one was there.  Suddenly, a number of the goats appeared and were eating the treasured fruit.  I watched them eat when out of the corner of my eye I noticed Shadow “making eyes” at Leonidas.

Ron had taught me that a doe in heat will linger around the buck pen.  Because Ron was at the new farm, I called him to report the news.  (Thank God for cell phones!)  He asked me if the buffs were in pasture, they were, and then gave me the go-ahead to put Shadow in with Leonidas, so I did. 

Leonidas, King of the Spartans
Shadow had moved away from the buck pen about 10 yards so I had to lead her to the gate—and she made no attempts to resist at all.  Once in, she immediately headed for the bucks’ feeding bin and began to eat.  Leonidas went over to her and began what turned out to be a long and quite beautiful mating ritual of licking ears, head, neck, sides and of course, the rear end.   They
stroked each other and “danced” around the pen.  I expected that he’d immediately mount her but she seemed to play coy with him and move about wanting him to chase her, which he did without complaint.  I wondered if she was prolonging this once-a-year game as much as possible or not or if this was just part of the ritual.
As the two goats carried on, a number of the doelings and kids stood with me watching.  I told them that they would soon get their turn as I rubbed their backs and necks.  I felt a little joy and a little sadness with them at this point, perhaps like a doting mother with a young adult venturing out on the dating scene. 

The mating of goats is all hormonal.  I guess this is the way it is with humans, too!  It is Nature’s way of continuing the species.  As a goat dairy, we depend on the proliferation of the species and aim to breed the best characteristics of mother and father goat as possible.  Since Ron is a geneticist, he takes special pride in goat breeding.

I had missed last year’s breeding time so bringing Shadow for the first mating of the herd—at least the first “official” mating—had particular significance for me.  It felt like an honor, especially since I was on my own.
Ron with Shadow as she gets ready for triplets in January 2010
I have really come to appreciate Shadow since I watched her give birth to triplets last January.  She knows what to do and then follows through.  She demands a certain respect, which I did not recognize at first.  And she doesn’t like her ears touched, at least by me, nor does she desire to be hugged and cooed over as I do the younger goats.  After I learned the “rules,” she began to relate to me more warmly, including rubbing her head against my thigh and even seeking me out when I visited.  She is a super goat!

While the mating ritual was going on, Shadow would occasionally look at us as if she were instructing the younger goats in the proper methods of dealing with a hot buck.  Then they got bored and sat on the ground with their backs to the buck pen.  The older does looked on at Shadow and Leonidas with the knowledge of what to expect:  Koo-Koo more interested and Lily just tolerant. 

On the other hand, Shadow might have been signaling us to get lost so she could have her privacy.  And like a queen should, she got her wish.  I was getting cold standing there so I left; the goats soon retreated to pasture.  The two lovers were in the far end of the pen and Shadow noticed we were all leaving.

I reported back to Ron and he was glad the goats paid so much attention.  That meant they are getting ready for mating as well.  He wants to bring Tiger back to do the job.  We’re going to have some fun, now!

Leonidas was totally focused on Shadow and didn’t pay any attention to us.  I was amazed at his affection but I also watched his virility expressed in different ways.  He’d dig his front hooves into the dirt as he kept up with Shadow’s “dance.”  He stick out his tongue and blow on it (it sounds like a sneeze) or he’d wail with anticipation.  He’d mount Shadow’s back from the side or he’d prance around her showing off his stiff neck and flowing hair.  He was magnificent and he’s been a good breeder for Dancing Turtle Farm and other goat operations that have used him as a breeder.  I couldn’t help contemplate that his whole existence was tied up in this yearly “job” of breeding the does that will produce kids who will breed and produce kids of their own.  Just another example of the cycle of life on the farm. 

One final thought on what I learned watching Shadow and Leonidas is that animals are not the wild creatures we make them out to be. They can be tender and they definitely relate to each other as individuals, which surprised me. They have rules and rituals, territories, likes and dislikes. I must investigate this more.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sustainability: A Great Future Is in Store for Us When We Take the Power

The distinctions between pessimism, optimism, and hope can make a difference when it comes to envisioning the future.

A pessimist believes there is no hope while an optimist thinks everything will turn out all right. A person of hope, however, tries to solve problems with the faith that his/her actions will create a better future.

Richard Heinberg, senior fellow-in residence at the Post Carbon Institute, spoke at the Eighth Annual Southwest Michigan Community Harvest Festival about peak oil and its implications for our way of life and for once I didn’t end up discouraged and depressed about the future. Actually, he both inspired and energized me as he sounded a clarion call for the audience to help create the next major era in our world’s history—and I want to be a part of it!

Peak oil means that we’re extracting oil at the highest rate we will ever achieve. After peak, the rate of production falls even though there’s still a lot of oil left. That’s when the problems begin because our entire economy is designed to function properly only when oil supplies are increasing.

A lot of people are depending on technology to come up with alternatives to oil: biofuels, hydrogen, tar sands, switch grass, wind, solar and the like. However, these resources cannot make up for the huge demand for oil.

For example, Americans currently consume 19.5 million barrels of oil per day while the rest of the world consumes 85 million barrels.

To give some scale to this, the United States, the top consumer, uses almost as much as the next four highest consumers combined including China (7.8 million), Japan (4.8 million), India (3 million) and Russia (2.9 million).

It is important to note that peak oil doesn’t mean we will be without oil. There is still a lot in the ground. What it means is that we are running out of cheap oil.

The oil we have been using over the past 150 years is the easiest to pump out and it’s called “light sweet crude” for that reason. You just dig a well and the oil gushes out. That’s why it is so cheap.

A land-based drill goes down into the earth 300 to 800 feet and costs $1 to $15 million depending on the well’s depth and difficulty. Compare that to deepwater rigs that cost between $200,000 to $400,000 per day with a single well costing $100 million.

Heinberg says that about a third of U.S. oil comes from off-shore drilling.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill has shown how very risky offshore drilling is. Birds, marine life and the tourist and fishing industries on the coast near Louisiana have been devastated. Meanwhile, the media and politicians have glossed over the fact that the Gulf of Mexico has almost 4,000 rigs operating under the same set of loose safety and regulatory requirements and enforcements as the Deepwater Horizon.

What are the chances of another spill? In June another occurred, this one southeast of the Mississippi Delta, before the first one had been stopped!

Many people think the high price of oil is due to greedy oil corporations. What is not understood is that more and more oil is being produced by difficult-to-obtain processes like the tar sands (a.k.a. oil sands) ( They are literally ripping the earth apart over 54,132 square miles of Alberta, Canada, to scoop up a heavy and viscous mixture of sand, clay, minerals, water and bitumen that are then treated and sent to refineries to produce gasoline and diesel. Each day 1.31 million barrels of bitumen are extracted (2008). Total reserves are now estimated at 171.8 billion barrels or about 13 percent of total global oil reserves (1,342 billion barrels), second only to Saudi Arabia.

Many people think biofuels will save us but they evoke some uncomfortable dilemmas. Land for biofuels would compete for space with land for growing food. Secondly, it takes more energy to produce ethanol than it gives. Finally, using land to grow fuel for our cars creates a moral and ethical problem when we consider that in 2008 there were riots in 20 countries because of food shortages.

In the 1930s, America used to supply half of the world’s oil, said Heinberg. However, the U.S. rate of production peaked in 1970. Now we import 65 percent of the 19.5 million barrels of petroleum that we consume each day.

When we talk about running short of oil, people’s eyes usually glaze over—and for good reason. Nearly everything we do and have is dependent on dread and/or disbelief, which means we will need to confront many difficult questions about our way of life.

For example, how can we commute long distances by car or travel by jet? How will we heat and cool off our homes or power our cities and institutions? Most of our food is trucked 1,500 miles before it gets to the local grocery store. How will we stock our shelves? Many consumer products are made from oil like our clothes, plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, cosmetics, deodorants, detergents, carpets, toothpaste and shoes. What will we have to give up?

What Heinberg makes clear is that the oil we use today will not be available for us tomorrow. The Post Carbon Institute recently ran computer-generated scenarios to explore the prospects of replacing our current economy and it could find none. None! So that means we must change our way of life such that we depend less and less on oil. The primary strategy available to us is conservation and many grassroots people have already begun the following projects:

· Co-Op Power (New England) is building a community-owned sustainable energy cooperative

· Mission Mountain Food Enterprise (Montana) is the go-between producer and grocer for local foods

· Avego is a company that provides tools using private cars for public transport

· Bicycle Kitchen (Los Angeles) teaches people how to repair their own bicycles

· Transition United States provides networking and training for more sustainable living

· Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association educates, advocates, promotes, and publicly demonstrates renewable energy technologies

In the Kalamazoo area, Transition Van Buren regularly meets to discuss energy issues. EatLocalSWMichigan has daily news and information about local food transition issues.

I don’t look forward to the end of the oil age any more than anyone else. It would greatly curtail my air travel and the convenience of my car. I like my home well-heated. I love Texas pink grapefruits in the fall and California vegetables during the winter. I don’t want to teach in a classroom where I may have to don an overcoat, hat and gloves. But if oil is too expensive, I may have to make these changes anyway—and many more.

Changing to a new way of living doesn’t have to be drudgery. I am currently preparing for the post-peak oil era by learning how to grow food. Surprisingly, this new venture has given me the joy of working the soil, eating good-tasting food, relating to farm animals and feeling great accomplishment after a day’s labor. Since I started gardening two summers ago I haven’t been sick a single day, which is probably due to being outside in the fresh air so much. I’ve become more attuned to Nature’s ways and enjoy its beauty. I’m meeting and talking to other people who are trying to adapt to the post-peak oil society and have acquired a whole new community of friends.

Many people also fear peak oil because it means the loss of more jobs. However, as a new society emerges, we will require new types of jobs and different skills. Heinberg suggested that the future calls for farmers, energy coaches, home heating/insulation specialists, solar/wind engineers, railroad construction workers, auto and pavement dismantlers, psychotherapists and recyclers to name a few.

However, Heinberg’s most hopeful message was that human beings as a species are made to adapt to changing environments and circumstances. We’ve been through hard times before, he said, and have succeeded in adapting because we are resilient, intelligent and hard working. And, with the future’s new challenges, we have an opportunity to re-make our society, which has the potential of being even better than our current one.

Truly, we’re in the driver’s seat on this one, so to speak, and that gives us a lot of freedom to act rather than rely on someone else or some organization or government to solve our problems.

The solutions to our energy future will require vision, initiative, experimentation, and courage. We can start by talking with our families, neighbors and friends about how to reduce our energy consumption as individual households and in our communities. We can also remember that when it comes to running our own lives, we have the power. Let’s use it!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Smoking Poet

I was fortunate enough to be featured in The Smoking Poet, a literary web magazine of Kalamazoo.

Check it out.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Travelogue: Passenger Trains--Our Hope for a More Sustainable Future

President Obama's proposal to spend $50 billion on transportation infrastructure—including 4,000 miles of rail lines—couldn't be a better expenditure of our federal tax dollars.

After spending two days on the Empire Builder, the long-haul Amtrak line from Chicago to Seattle/Portland, I quickly realized that our investment in trains should be readily and heartily embraced.  And, if more Americans were to take such trips, I’m sure they, too, would choose trains as an alternative mode of travel.

Amtrak staff was courteous and responsive to passengers, a bit quirky as train people can be, but absolutely delightful while we all traveled the miles and hours together across the country. Riding the train, especially on an overnight, was romantic and adventurous and we kept to our schedule despite the numerous times we had to yield to freight trains.

Actually, it’s a miracle that Amtrak has lasted these past 40 years since President Richard Nixon deliberately designed it for failure.  Different administrations—both Democratic and Republican—have either ignored passenger rail or, like President George W. Bush, actively sought to scuttle it.

James McCommons, author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service (2009) tells the story about Amtrak and America’s relationship with trains along with some great travelogues of his year-long train trips around the country.

He points out that most legislators who vote on appropriations for passenger trains have never ridden a train, which severely works against Amtrak. Others have been adamant that Amtrak make a profit.

Truth is, there is no public transportation system in the world that earns a profit.

What is clear is that train networks serve as a means to an end, namely, they contribute to an area’s economic development, an idea that is capturing the attention of more and more mayors across the country, especially in this weak economy.

Actually, highways and airports are not money-makers either and the federal government subsidizes them to the tune of $180 billion per year. Amtrak only gets $1 billion. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t realize that a transportation network is one of the benefits of their taxes.

The reason that Amtrak has been short-sheeted is that passenger rail has simply not been a government priority.

After 100 years of moving people within our cities and around the country, trains lost favor because people were sick of the rapacious and corrupt conduct of the railroad corporations. The vehicles were dirty and staff was rude or mean. Ridership had been steadily declining since 1920. After World War II, the nation made a dramatic switch to invest in highways because our roads were poor and lacked connectivity and, well, people liked driving their cars. It didn’t help that the automobile, oil and tire companies conspired—or at least lobbied—against the public transportation system for their own interests as depicted in the 1996 PBS film, “Taken for a Ride” and its 2008 Part II version

Promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 required citizens to finance the Interstates by paying 15 to 20 percent of the price of a gallon of gas. The 46,876-mile Interstate system took 35 years to complete and cost $128.9 billion.  The feds paid 90 percent of the cost or about $114 billion—$425 billion in 2006 dollars— even though the Interstates were under the control of the states.  Governors and mayors signed onto this massive public works plan without hesitation because they saw it as an economic development tool for their cities. They would be proved wrong within a couple decades.

As more and more people needed and bought cars, they found themselves stuck in more traffic jams and having to contend with endless road repair. Operating an automobile amounted to $6,000 to $7,000 per year (outside its purchase) and the accident and death rates related to cars—at least 40,000 deaths per year—were overwhelming.

Building the Interstates in the cities also drastically changed urban life, something Eisenhower never intended and experts never foresaw. Neighborhoods were torn up to make way for the highways. Social stratification and racial discrimination intensified as middle class white people migrated to the suburbs and left poor people and minority groups behind in the cities. Downtowns that were designed for pedestrians became congested places and the influx of cars made them frustrating to navigate. Old buildings were demolished to create surface parking, which then created gaping, ugly holes in the cityscape.  People felt unsafe and increasingly reluctant to go downtown. Retail moved out to the suburbs and the companies eventually followed. Of course, all of this out-migration ended up depleting the tax base and making ghost towns out of our once vibrant and prosperous downtowns.

By the late 1990s transportation engineers and analysts began questioning the Interstate’s “externalities” as they costed out pollution, energy waste, land disruption, accidents, time wasted in traffic jams.  They also learned that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to add highway lanes and interchanges didn’t relieve congestion.

The airlines tried to make up for their operational costs with reduced legroom, poorer air quality and overcrowding. Greater demand for air travel also necessitated building or expanding airports, which all takes up a lot of tax dollars.

With the 1990s came new attitudes toward cities and toward the environment. Young people and empty nesters found cities a “hip” place to live and began moving back. They reduced their car usage and demanded more public transportation options. People started a movement to restore historic buildings and revitalize their downtowns.

Meanwhile, rail advocates were keeping Amtrak alive, albeit by a thread. Among them was Gil Carmichael, a former highway lobbyist, owner of five car dealerships and an airport charter service. He later founded the Intermodal Transportation Institute at the University of Denver where he advocates for what he calls Interstate II.

Interstate II involves double- or triple-tracking 20,000 to 30,000 miles of mainline freight railroads, establishing corridors for high-speed trains and eventually electrifying the trains to replace diesel engines. Carmichael estimates this could all be done in 20 years for two cents on the motor fuel tax.

“We have this incredible railroad network that goes out all over this land from city center to city center. That's what is so amazing. It's already there,” said Carmichael (in McCommons).

Another idea train advocates promote is the re-establishment of a combined freight and passenger rail system through private-public partnerships that work with state transportation departments.  Dedicated passenger lines have a multiplier effect that can relieve traffic congestion, reduce freight bottlenecks, diminish flight delays, reduce this country's carbon footprint and accommodate people without cars or the means or desire to fly.

When Amtrak was created, politicians, lobbyists and fiscal conservatives really wanted to deep-six passenger rail altogether within two years. It was only through political wrangling and arm-twisting that train advocates were able to save passenger rail by separating it from freight and calling it Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. That did not mean, however, that it would be efficient, well-funded or make a profit despite Nixon’s caveat that the new railroad be off the government dole as soon as possible.

The United States has never had a vision for an integrated railroad network nor has it adequately funded one, says John Gibson, vice president of Operations Research and Planning at CSX (quoted in McCommons).  Instead, passenger rail has been a hit and miss enterprise as Amtrak has tried to put its trains on networks owned and managed by the freight companies.

Could there be a renaissance in trains? Yes, says McCommons, because as the nation’s population increases, as more people decide to lead urban lives and as cities increase in density, it makes sense to use rail—especially with energy costs expected to climb.

“In terms of efficiency—fuel savings, lower carbon outputs, smaller footprint on the landscape—the advantage is really rail,” said Armando Carbonell of the Lincoln institute of Land Policy in Cambridge (quoted in McCommons). “It has been significantly underinvested in and disadvantaged against the other modes. We once had good train service in this country. We need to recover that capacity.”

The Obama administration clearly sees the possibilities of rail and so it gave Amtrak $8 billion in the stimulus package and another $1.3 billion for car rehabilitation and infrastructure repair on the Northeast Corridor. Vice President Joe Biden, a well-known train buff and consistent passenger during his senatorial days, obviously had a lot to do with this boost for Amtrak. 

This is all a good start but we still have a long way to go.

So, ride the train if you haven’t already, and encourage others to ride also, including your congressional representatives. It's a great way to get this country back on track!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Travelogue: Detroit Tigers Baseball with the Portage Senior Center

Four of my neighbors (Anita Lawson with Dick, Dean and Sarah Hauck) and I joined the members of the Portage Senior Center fora Tiger baseball game against the Chicago White Sox. to watch pitcher Rick "the Kid" Porcello, 21, achieve his fourth win in a row. The right-hander (9-11) gave up three runs, four hits and no walks in eight innings Thursday at Commerica Park in Downtown Detroit. He threw 105 pitches, 67 for strikes. In his four-game winning streak, he has a 2.48 ERA over 29 innings and has allowed 15 hits.

The game was fun, especially since the Tigers won. But what was really stunning was the Center's excellent organization of the trip by Trudy and Roger, our guide/escorts. We stopped at McDonald's in Jackson for a breakfast break halfway to Detroit and then at Culver's on the way home we had dinner, a first time for me. They gave us a seek-and-find puzzle on major league home run hitters--with a prize, of course--and then had us give the hitters' first names. Trudy also told baseball jokes, which were pretty corny but turned out to be funny because of the way she told them. Trudy and Roger really know how to make the time pass on a bus trip!

I was equally impressed with the people on the trip. It's a rare experience these days to be a part of a group where members are respectful of each other by boarding the bus on time, friendly, and while on the bus, knew how to talk in person-to-person tones sans electronic noise.

We arrived at the ballpark about an hour before the game was to start so we got our complimentary hot dog and soft drink and had our lunch. We also had time to ride the Tiger carousel. It's been a long time since I've done that--and we it was fun!

Although I never want to be labeled a senior citizen--no matter what my age--I wouldn't hesitate for a minute to join a trip with the Portage Senior Citizens!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Travelogue: How I Became a “Rail Fan”

The first time I ever took a train was with the girl scouts when our leaders, Mrs. Belko and Mrs. Rieburger, planned a Saturday day trip to the Holland Tulip Festival. About 15 young girls with a couple mother-sponsors rode the rails from Detroit to Grand Rapids and then took a bus to Holland.

This was a memorable trip for me, mostly for its long distance from home, the back and forth swaying of the train that made walking difficult, the toilets that emptied their contents onto the track, and the conical paper cups that held water from the push-button dispenser.

Today, trains have more significance for me than the curiosities of my youth. They are a "green" way to travel and a key component of our public transportation system. They avoid the hassles of freeway driving and the expense of auto parking or the long waits and delays of the airport. And, they are just plain fun to ride.

After discovering the Empire Builder, the long-haul line from Chicago to Seattle/Portland, I decided the adventure of “eating up” all those miles was just too good to miss. Fortunately, a friend of mine who lives in western Montana provided me with the perfect excuse to go cross-country by train. And, after spending 31 hours and one night, I quickly realized I had a lot more reasons to enjoy this wonderful form of travel.

As a writer, I need time and space to allow ideas to flow more easily through me. Starring out the window of a train that rocks back and forth as it moves forward provides both the rhythm and the environment for solitude. The low-toned rumble of metal on metal is more soothing than the high-pitched muscle of jet engines or the droning of an auto motor. I can scribble down notes for an article I'm working on, read, reflect on my encounters with fellow passengers or just be alone in my thoughts. I can also be inspired by the passing landscape, small towns, big cities and the diversity of people that trains seem to attract like the 90-year-old woman traveling alone to see her sister; the legions of Amish who picked up the train at different stops to attend a family funeral; the young man with no legs who ordered lunch in the snack car; the cowboy with his hat, jeans and boots who sat by himself all the way from Montana to Milwaukee; and the big, hulking Native American who kissed his wife for 30 to 40 minutes before he boarded.

In truth, trains are one of the last public spaces left in our society and they also demand a different kind of behavior than we are accustomed in today's fast-paced, impersonal, high-security, privatized society. You can interact with other passengers you don't know, feel safe with them, and be with people who are largely respectful toward their fellow travelers. On a long haul train people seem to want—and conductors seem to care about ensuring—an environment that is quiet and absent the omnipresent cacophony of electronic devices, boisterous talking, and rowdiness. Of course, the Lounge Car is available for those who prefer more spirited interaction.

As with any public space, trains beckon you to explore them in a number of ways. You can walk around to stretch your legs or use the restroom. You can go to the Lounge Car to play cards, read, observe the scenery or get a snack. You can also go to the Dining Car for a delicious meal at a table complete with a tablecloth, cloth napkins, real silverware and friendly servers. Because space is limited, the maitre d’uses every seat, so if you are traveling alone or in a group with less than four, you will sit with other travelers.

Wearing some kind of identifying mark like a Chicago Cubs cap, a Lady Gaga t-shirt, or a place-oriented jacket as I did, provides you with a handy conversation starter. Several young people stopped me to ask if I knew their friends when they saw my Kalamazoo College jacket.

Train personnel are generally more interactive than those you find on airplanes. And on a long haul line, they're with you for the entire trip, so you get to know them because you both are on train time where the time boundaries are much broader and the pace more leisurely. Isn’t that what life should be about anyway?

All of these opportunities for encounters enhance your travel experience because they are energizing and engaging compared to other more hurried, confined, and oppressive forms of travel where you want to get out of the vehicle as soon as you can.

Traveling in a long haul train also allows you to feel the expanse of the country. An overnight ride is exciting to fathom when you realize that you go to sleep in one place and wake up hundreds of miles away in another. Air travel, of course, provides a similar experience except that your focus is on the hours you must sit in your cramped little seat. Flying, though fast, is more surreal because you cannot see the space you traverse since you are at least a mile high over the ground with much of it blocked by cloud cover.

Car travel allows you to traverse the miles at your own pace and convenience, but you must be vigilant to the road and, like air travel, you are confined to a small space. And although you travel on public roads, you tend to treat your car more like private space.

My ride to Whitefish, Montana (what a funky name for a town!) covered 1620 miles of the northern-most parts of the United States. I crossed the mighty Mississippi River and saw the “spacious skies” and “amber waves of grain” gradually give way to the “purple mountain majesties.” I felt both pride and blessedness in my country as we passed by industrious large cities, quaint small towns, colorful farms, and magnificent landscapes of forests, rivers and plains that have each created unique cultures and lifestyles sensitive to place. One surprising effect of this long ride was that I came out of it feeling as though I had just witnessed Walt Whitman's America.

Sleeping comfortably on a train can be a challenge but it's certainly not as bad as trying to sleep in an airplane. If you travel by coach, you might be lucky enough to have two seats to yourself, which then provides you with a couple options: you can curl up across the seats or you can sit up and use the foot rest or leg rest. I found it comfortable to stretch my small body diagonally across two seats with my head wedged in my traveler's pillow at the window and my feet on the leg rest of the other seat. Since you are primarily traveling through the countryside, there is virtually no light coming in from outside. Meanwhile, the low blue ceiling lights in the aisle help guide your way should you need to get up during the night. People seem to quiet down around ten and the motion of the train soon rocks you to sleep. I got eight hours each night while on the train, more than I usually get at home, and felt refreshed in the morning as the sun rose on the Dakota prairie.

If you want to sleep on a bed or have more privacy, you can purchase a roomette or a first class cabin. This more costly option also includes your dining car meals, a wine tasting party at 3 p.m. and certain privileges at train stations. It is a means of travel reminiscent of the days when only the wealthy could afford such luxury on trains.

The summer-long Rails to Trails Program, a special collaboration between Amtrak and the National Park Service, also offers travelers the opportunity to learn more about the countryside and its historical and geographical significance from volunteers who enthusiastically research and prepare scripts of useful information about the places you are seeing out your window. You will find them in the Lounge Car.

As a result of my trip on the Empire Builder, I have come to believe that trains facilitate your ability to be a “real traveler” because you can meet a variety of people, learn about their lives, discuss their ideas, and really see the country. This trip has inspired me to take more long haul train journeys with the goal of seeing the entire country by rail as long as I have the time and money to do so. Trains take a little longer than other modes of transportation but the experience they provide enriches you even before you arrive at your destination. Go Amtrak!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Farm Journal: Testosterone Rush, Farm Safety and Nostalgia

One of the things I like about farming is that it gives me a testosterone rush, something every woman needs from time to time.

We haul things around, use machines, and care for the animals, some of which are 1800 pounds. Of course, everything we do is outdoors. This is so different from my urban, academic life of 28 years!

My 1950’s mindset still associates work done outside as men’s work. I never liked housework because I found the tasks my father did outside more appealing. Our biggest project was leveling the front lawn. It took all day and a lot of sweat but it looked much better and I felt great accomplishment. Now that I’m farming, I’ve get this same kind of feeling all over again!

Today, we took down the stock fence from what used to be sectioned off as the buck pen. This fence will be used at the farm in Bangor. In the meantime, this newly-opened area will give the buffalo more room. Once they discovered their expanded digs after a day in pasture, they immediately started investigating it—and found new grass to munch!

The panels of the fence were put together with clips that hung on nine-foot steel fence posts. With a pair of huge tin snips, Ron snapped off the clips as I collected them. We have to be careful we don’t drop such small metal pieces on the ground because the goats and buffs will eat them. These pieces are indigestible and would stay in their rumens eventually causing problems. So we take extra special care to make sure all metal pieces, nails, etc. are out of the animals' reach.

Soo spent most of the day at the office but then arrived home at just the right time to help with the fence. Together we carried the 16-foot panels over to the barn where they will later be packed. Then we had to pull out the fence posts, which were stuck deep into the ground by about two feet. Now I was to learn a new use for the tractor.

Ron brought out the longest and heaviest link chain I have ever seen in my life and began wrapping it around the bucket of the tractor. Next he wrapped the chain around the bottom of the fence post and hooked one end to the wrapped chain. He jumped back into the tractor seat and lifted the bucket straight up to pull out the fence post and voila. It was like extracting a big tooth.

“You saw how I did it,” he said to me. “Now it’s your turn.”

He positioned the tractor bucket in front off the next post and then like him, I wrapped the chain around the bottom of the post. He lifted the bucket and the post again came out. I felt instant success!

We went on to the third post but I somehow got the hook on the wrong part of the chain. When Ron lifted the tractor bucket, the chain unraveled. Then I had to put the whole thing back together again. With Soo’s help and Ron’s direction, I finally got the chain around the bucket and away we went pulling out the next post. I was beginning to “feel my oats” with this job and enthusiastically “worked” the chain like a pro.

“Pay attention,” yelled Ron, noticing a bit of my overconfidence. “Watch out for the bucket as well as the fork lifts sticking out of the front of the tractor.”

Farm work is extremely dangerous and the cause of many unnecessary and foolish accidents. It pays to know what can happen so that you can prevent tragedy. Here are some of the most common accidents based on STD/LTD/Fatal Claims, 2005-2009 (March 31, 2010):
· Overexertion while lifting boxes, crates, pots, buckets, bags, bundles
· Overexertion while pulling/pushing carts, boxes, crates
· Struck by cattle, horses
· Struck by knives
· Struck by doors, gates
· Falling from ladder
· Falling/jumping from nonmoving cart/tractor/vehicle
· Tripping over skids, ropes, pipes, pallets, platforms, blocks, etc.
· Slipping on ice/water
· Falling while carrying a heavy object

John Temperley, from the Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety, says each on-farm accident costs at least $1 million and that farm accident and deaths cost the agricultural sector more than $1 billion per year (

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that tractor accidents on farms cause the highest number of fatalities with tractor overturns accounting for 44 percent of all tractor fatalities. Even though this data is from 1989, it serves as an important and pertinent warning to farmers today--rookies and experienced veterans alike.

The American Red Cross has long acknowledged the need for home and farm accident education for nearly a century and in 1935 it established an accident prevention program at the national level. Primarily known as the premier provider of first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training, lifeguard training and water safety instruction, HIV/AIDS prevention education, caregiving, the Red Cross sees health and safety education programs as part of the organization's mission of emergency prevention and preparedness.

While I’m talking about farm safety, I should note that Ron had also told me that bulls are especially dangerous on farms and this is the reason we must be very careful with Le Bon, the water buffalo. I looked up Wikipedia’s references about bulls and it notes that 42 percent of all livestock-related fatalities are a result of bull attacks, and only one in twenty victims of a bull attack survives. Dairy breed bulls are particularly dangerous and unpredictable; the hazards of bull handling are a significant cause of injury and death for dairy farmers in some parts of the United States. The need to move the bull in and out of its pen to cover cows exposes the farmer to serious jeopardy of life and limb. Being trampled, jammed against a wall or gored by a bull was one of the most frequent causes of death in the dairy industry prior to 1940. As suggested in one popular farming magazine, “Handle [the bull] with a staff and take no chances. The gentle bull, not the vicious one, most often kills or maims his keeper.”

Back to the fence posts--and more

We finished with the steel posts and it was such enjoyable that I felt I could do it all day. It gave me a rush to see how human ingenuity and machine could get a job done. This is something I especially appreciate about farm work: using practical applications to solve various problems that invariably arise. Farmers think differently from academics, for example, who live in a world of ideas. Let’s just say that right now I seek to become more practical as I continue to work on the farm. But let me provide another example of farm think.

Every morning before Ron feeds the animals, he says hello to them and looks them over for lesions, worms, weight and other health issues. He also observes their behavior individually and with the other animals, especially at this time of year when the does go into heat and the bucks begin the ritual of spraying each other with urine (an aphrodisiac for goats) and knocking each other around as they ready themselves for the mating season.

Ron and I were standing at the blue farm gate at the north pen next to the barn when one of the heifers Ron was petting suddenly jumped away from him. It happened again and this time five other heifers jumped back 20 feet away looking puzzled. Ron then got a shock. Something was wrong and he had to find out what it was and it provided yet another example of how Ron’s mind works.

His life as a scientist has trained him to begin any problem-solving process with the phrase: “Now let’s think about this.” Fortunately, it didn’t take him long to figure out that the buffs had been leaning against the stock fence and bent it so that it inadvertently touched the electric wire that lines the inside of the north pen. That was the reason for the small electric shocks. Since the timing of this discovery was not an optimal one to fix the fence (the animals needed to be fed and put out to pasture so that we could clean the barn), Ron sought a temporary solution. He asked me to find a three-foot piece of wood near the barn and then he put it in between the electric wire and the stock fence. Problem solved for now. Hours later after we took down the stock fence, he fixed this part of the fence.

After we finished with the fencing, Ron, Soo and I spread new straw on the floor of the barn. The animals had been waiting to get into the barn for some time. They gathered at the gate a few times when we were in sight as if to say: “Let us in. We want a rest from the pasture in the cool barn.” When we didn’t let them in, they’d disappear or sit under the trees within eye-shot of the barn. Occasionally, we’d talk about them and they seemed to know this. Lucy, who is always good conversation for her antics, seemed to glare at us as if she heard what we said about her. Then Koo-Koo, who was sitting under a tree with the water buffalo, got up and moved closer to us when we started talking about her wide-body girth. Coincidence? Maybe, but I don’t doubt for a minute that the animals know when we're talking about them. By God, they can even understand English!

One big surprise today: we found a guinea hen nest in the kid pen! At least this one is protected from predators. Last month one of guineas made a nest near the potato field so Ron built a protective "house" of sticks around it. When the 11 chicks hatched, he put them in the poultry house. However, the guinea led her brood out one day and four were lost or killed. Ron captured the remaining seven and returned them to safety. Last month Ron found another guinea nest at the pond near the house and the eggs were eaten probably by a raccoon. One day Donna found a turkey nest in the loft with 11 eggs while we were stacking straw bales. Only two of those eggs survived and yesterday while Kurt and I were picking raspberries, the young turkeys were out for a walk around the potato field with their proud parents. It was quite a sight as they emerged from the green plants. The tom looked especially brilliant as he seems to have healed from his wounds after a predator attacked him in July. Thank goodness. He's sometimes a pest but he's beautiful when he struts with all his feathers displayed.

We were very efficient at cleaning the barn today and I feel as though I’m getting to know every nook and cranny of the building, what it demands as well as where goats, buffs and llamas hang out in it. For example, Shadow, Koo-Koo, Lily and Elle typically lie down in the middle stall while many of the year-old doelings use the larger one to the right of it. Some of the kids stay in the buffalo section of the barn on top of and below a platform that is there, while the “triplets,” Ella, Georgia and Lena, have chosen the small spot under the feeder in the loafing room. The llamas have their own latrine in the southeast corner.

This will probably be the last time we clean the barn before the move to Bangor. Ron will have the entire building power sprayed. I will miss cleaning this barn as I will miss working on this farm. It was here that I first learned about gardening, goats, running the tractor and all the other things. I’m just a hopeless nostalgic. On the other hand, there will be new challenges, new learnings, and new experiences on the Kleins’ new farm in Bangor, which will further my understanding of farming in the new post-industrial, post-peak oil era. More on that later. Sunshadow Farm, here we come!