Sunday, August 28, 2011

Only God Can Make a Tree

When my husband and I moved to the house we now live in, the neighborhood was brand new. In fact, my son and I had discovered the house for sale. Our son was eight, at the time, and the two of us had gone out for an afternoon bike ride. We rode from where we lived to a newly developing neighborhood very close by. In fact, our old house and our now house are less than a mile apart.

As we rode into the developing neighborhood, it showed all the signs of being brand new. About a dozen houses had been built, all on speculation. Since it was during a housing slow-down, very few had sold. And there were NO trees anywhere.

Once we had bought the house, and moved in, one of the first things on the list of things to do was to plant trees. The wind came whistling out of the north-west, and smacked our new house, especially in the winter. So, trees to help break that whistling wind were a MUST.

We got about a dozen small evergreens--all bare root stock and each eighteen inches high. And I walked along the back of our lot, with my husband digging holes, as I planted the small trees. Each tree seemed to be pitifully small. The result was that we planted them entirely too close together. As it happened, about every other tree was a Japanese pine. When they got too big, we took them out, leaving the Douglas firs, the Scotch pine, and the Colorado blue spruce, and one lone Austrian pine. Eventually, we added two Engelmann spruce (that had been live trees in front of our church).

This year, we had the Austrian pine taken down. It still had some green at the top, but most of the rest of it was dead. A neighbor thought it might come down in his yard, so we had it removed.

When Hurricane Irene began to blow up the East Coast, it did not even cross my mind that we might have storm damage. This week began with an earthquake in the east--a rare occurrence. So, a hurricane seemed like a fitting second act. But we have had hurricanes blow through central Pennsylvania before. Some do significant damage--mostly from high water.
Hurricane Agnes in 1972 was just such a storm.

But the forecasts showed our town to be just enough to the west of Hurricane Irene that it seemed we might get a dose of rain, some wind, but not much else.

I awakened around 4:30 a.m. to hear the rain and the wind. Things sounded restless enough outside that I did not go back to sleep--more from curiosity than concern. As it began to get more light outside, I could see the trees being whipped around by the wind.

When I looked outside again--I got the first shock. TREE DOWN. This Douglas fir was one that our son had brought home from grade school, which we planted near our pool. And now it was down--just heaved over from the too much rain softened soil, and finished off by the wind.

Then, a bit later--there seemed to be far more light to the north side of our house than usual. Tree 2 down.

And, it continued then when Tree 3 leaned, on its way down, only to be stopped by a neighbor's black cherry tree.

So, now we wait for a tree service to come, clear away, clean up and haul off our lovely 30 plus year old trees.

And, then, we will have to decide--what to plant there next.

Joyce Kilmer's
oft-cited poem came to mind:

I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree. . .

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


After the event this afternoon, my husband remarked with incredible irony that he had thought of the possibility of experiencing an earthquake, but assumed that we'd be in California, if that happened.

With our son and daughter-in-law now living in southern California, we know we will be visiting there more frequently. So that raised the possibility of experiencing an earthquake--not a huge likelihood, true. But we certainly didn't think we'd feel the earth moving here in central Pennsylvania.

Yet, that is precisely what we felt today. Just before 2 p.m. EST, we each felt something a bit unusual--my husband thought the dog had bumped his office chair. I saw the walls seem to move slightly--a disorienting sensation.

I confess, the first place I turned to figure out what had happened was Facebook. It lit up like a switchboard (what a funny comparison). And immediately the USGS confirmed that it was indeed a 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered in Mineral, Virginia, some 90 miles south of Washington, DC.

Here's a USGS map of the places where the earthquake was felt--based on reports people have made.
I can't say that experiencing an earthquake was on any personal experience list that I had--but if this is the only earthquake I experience, I am just fine with that. I recall hearing from an aunt of mine who lived through the great Alaska earthquake of 1964. That event seemed like the end of the world to her.

I am fine with a 5.8 magnitude earthquake almost 200 miles from where I live. I would NOT want to experience a 9.2 magnitude earthquake.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Writing on the Wall

Well, the local news has done it again.

I know I have railed before, in this venue, about the sad state of news coverage in general in the U.S., and on the woeful
approach to news coverage in local news. I guess I shouldn't be surprised when a local television news station leads off its nightly news with an absurd story.

So, here's what the local CBS affiliate
led with last night: "3 deaths reported from brain-eating water amoeba." (As a side note, when they promo'd the news earlier in the evening, with that headline, they showed a graphic of a euglena! So, big deal, you say--amoeba, euglena, what's the diff?)

Never mind the wrong graphic, I have so many OTHER problems with this story. First, the deaths that were reported occurred in Louisiana, Virginia and Florida. Huh? Three places that are MILES (make that states) away from our city. Second, our city is located along a river--the Susquehanna--and people do use it as an entertainment source--a place to swim if there isn't a community pool nearby...i.e. much of the inner city. And yet, one visual point after another featured our river. In fact, the local reporter was STANDING in the river (wearing waders). I am certain there are some viewers who thought--YIKES, can't swim in the river anymore. Third, the reporter went on to say--the one victim even contracted his amoeba from TAP WATER. Oh, no. Not even tap water is safe.

Fourth, when the local reporter talked to someone knowledgeable in the area--a physician--the physician stated point blank--such a condition is EXTREMELY rare. (Something like 1 chance in 10 million!) Got that--extremely. Yet, the local news led with this story.

Sadly, science knowledge and comprehension continues to decline in the U.S. I suspect too many viewers won't exercise their healthy skepticism. Instead, they will go--oh dear, there's a flesh eating amoeba in our river, and we're all going to die! And even if you do an Internet search on the topic, you don't find much help out there. The first story that popped up in my search was from an
NPR blog. NPR? Really!


What to do? It certainly doesn't help that we have, among the dominant forces in our country, destructive pressures on the reason to have any science knowledge. Of course, it's too simple to blame television, but I can't help but wonder what all the exposure to "reality" shows is doing to our thinking powers. There are many reasons why people might like reality shows: the chance to root for the underdog; the "at least it's not me" syndrome; the freak show appeal. But advancing knowledge is not one of those reasons. And yet, these shows dominate television, driving out quality drama, and killing informative shows in general.

Another culprit to this decline in scientific knowledge, in my opinion, is the disdain that is heaped on long-held scientific views. Take Rick Perry, for example. Seriously, take him. OK-sorry, old joke (thank you, Henny Youngman). Anyway, Perry made news recently when
he opined that evolution is "a theory that's out there...and it has some gaps in it." He went on to say that in Texas (Lord, deliver us from another Texan) they teach both evolution and creationism*, and he guesses the students are smart enough to figure it out.

When I was most recently teaching, I encountered students who had been schooled in a such a way. One earnest young man even brought his science text books in from a private religious school (complete with artistic renderings of Adam and Eve). This dismissive tendency--to say evolution is a theory (implying that as such it is not reliable, much less proven)--in part draws on a common misunderstanding of how science uses the term "theory."
Wikipedia does a nice job of explaining the word's meaning in a scientific context: "A common distinction sometimes made in science is between theories and hypotheses, with the former being considered as satisfactorily tested or proven and the latter used to denote conjectures or proposed descriptions or models which have not yet been tested or proven to the same standard." So, where the average person in public hears "theory," thinks "unproven," the scientist says "theory," and means "demonstrates by data over time."

So, saying something is a theory does not mean it is unproven. It means that it has been satisfactorily tested and proven.

I shudder when I think how the dismissive approach to science is affecting our country. I read a recent
New York Times article that put things into stunning context. Herewith the gist: Grinell College in Iowa markets itself to students in China, which has resulted in 1 in 10 applicants to Grinell come from China (about 200 students). Of those 200 Chinese applicants, half have perfect scores in the math SAT. HALF. Perfect scores.


So, while Rick Perry disparages evolution, while local news scares people to death with stories of flesh eating amoebae, while U.S. citizens wile away the hours watching reality shows on TV, the students in China are studying math. I don't know about you--folks--but I see the writing on the wall, and it doesn't say USA.

Texas Tribune notes the following:
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that teaching creationism in public schools was unconstitutional. In the case Edwards v. Aguillard, the court ruled that teaching creationism in Louisiana public schools was the equivalent of teaching religion — and violated the Constitution because it advanced a particular religion.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

We have recently returned from visiting our son and daughter-in-law, who recently moved from Pittsburgh to San Diego. We had not seen them since they left the east coast. And now they are living on the west coast.

As ever, the ocean is a marvelous thing to behold. Two things can bear endless watching: a camp fire or fireplace, and the ocean.

We had spectacular weather while we were there--it was wondrous to leave the heat and humidity of a typical Pennsylvania summer, and experience the cool days with breezes blowing.

While we were there, we used Skype to have a sort of family reunion--talking with our daughter and son-in-law who live in London. Yes, that London.

Not long after we returned home, the news began breaking about a sudden up-swell of riots in Tottenham, a section of London. As if someone splashed gasoline on smoldering embers, the riots bloomed and spread through various parts of London. Then it morphed again, and spread to other cities in the UK.

View Initial London riots / UK riots in a larger map

The map above gives some sense of the extent of these riots.

It is always hard to be a parent when your children live at a distance from you. But, it is even harder to have them literally a continent apart and away.

It really struck me that there's a sense of revisiting, in contemporary terms, what Dickens was writing about in his classic A Tale of Two Cities. Of course, then London was the stable city, while Paris was the city on fire.

I am hoping that calm is restored soon. And even though we are thousands of miles from our children, we too can regain our calm. But, as we wait for calm, I also recall the moral of another English novel--The Lord of the Flies: the veneer of civilization is very thin indeed.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

One Man's Mutilation

An ad I saw the other day in the New York Times sent my mind spinning. And it made me recall what was so much fun about teaching.

There are many things I loved about teaching, but far and away my favorite part has always been having spirited class discussions.

Soon after I returned to teaching, at the local community college, I learned that a new essay text was going to be picked. When the writing coordinator asked if anyone wanted to help select it, I volunteered. We ended up picking a neat text of essays (called Every Day, Everywhere) that included a wide range of delightful readings.

Early in a semester, I would assign Germaine Greer's incisive essay titled "One Man's Mutilation is Another Man's Beautification." You can read it here, if you like.

To get students' minds working, I would show them various photos--here are some samples.

from top left, clockwise: Neck elongation; skin scarification; henna painted hand; lip enlarging using wooden disk; bound foot (pointing straight down); and filed teeth.

Invariably, students would react negatively. The one practice that really seemed to bother them was foot binding. A spirited discussion always followed my showing that photo.

Of course, I was lying in wait for them. After the students got lathered up in discussing the barbarian practice of foot binding, I would ask--you mean you wouldn't submit to such a practice? Of course not, they indignantly replied.

And then I showed them photos such as this.

What's the difference? I asked. And then the discussion really heated up.

I am particularly interested in the answer. Shoes with such a high heel go in and out of style. I remember spike heels. I wore some when I was younger. I do NOT wear anything like that today. I wince and hobble with bad knees, even if I am bare foot, or have my favorite pair of Clark's on my feet. Super high heels? Well, you may as well tell me to have my feet bound.

Of course, what I am tapping into with the discussion is the cultural variations we all exhibit. And that's what Germaine Greer meant by her provocative title.

Bound feet...
Super high heels
Body piercings...
Teeth filing...
Teeth capping...

Ah, the ad? Well, it was those photos of women's super high heels. Inflicted cruelty in the name of fashion, if you ask me, resulting in long-term mutilation all for the sake of short-term beautification.

One man's (or woman's) mutilation is indeed another man's (or woman's) beautification. OK, class, discuss among yourselves.