Insurgent Oaks: the insurrection grows

[This is an update on a blogpost I first posted on the Writer’s Carnival website last August, and posted here last December.]

I followed my basic battle plan.  As acorns began dropping last September, I collected them in dishpan-sized bins and stored them in the garage, out of the heat. It was a mast year for acorn drop, so I ended up with five bins, heaped.  The acorns came from three trees that dropped different sizes of acorns:  small, medium, and serious head-thumpers.

As an experiment, I immediately planted a dozen or so of the plumpest  by using the point of old pruning shears to drill four or five inches into the sun-baked ground, then put temporary shade structures over them to prevent roasting.

When the first rains were forecast, I started raking up fallen leaves, carting them out front to blanket my flat expanse of dry lawn stubble.  (If lack of water hadn’t killed off all the grass, maybe lack of sunshine would.) Eventually the blanket, four and five inches deep, covered the yard’s prime grow-zone (the middle third of the yard, not too close to the house or power lines.)

I brought in leaves from several different kinds of trees, and quickly learned my first lesson — small leaves work better than large ones.

Small leaves from oak and ash trees were better at staying in place during windy weather. Large leaves from maple, cottonwood, and sycamore kept ending up drifted against the house.  I’d rake them up and put them back on the blanket, hoping rain and sun would break them into smaller, tamer pieces.

As cool weather and spells of rain settled in, I removed the shade structures so the planted acorns would get watered, and I brought out the bins of acorns to scatter.

Horrors.

Every binned acorn had at least one hole where a grub had drilled its way out.  Grubs wriggled in the bottom of the bins, and black mold covered the lower layers of acorns.  I was certain I’d lost a year’s harvest, and the insurrection would have to start again the next September, because not one of those acorns would sprout.

In a way, I was right. Not ONE of those acorns sprouted — THEY ALL DID.

By mid spring, my yard had become the nursery for a thousand infant oak trees.

At first, I did nothing but cheer them on.  I knew I’d have to make choices later about which ones could be left to grow, but at this stage I wanted natural selection, not my interference, to show me which seedlings were the healthiest, most vigorous and resilient. The life of a baby oak isn’t all rains and roses, you know.  They need inborn stamina.

This year’s El Nino rains helped.  The long rainy season meant I didn’t need to interfere until mid-May, when I gave the rapidly drying grow-zone one deep overall soak.

End-of-May hot weather sent me out to fashion shade structures to protect the infants from leaf-crisping heat.  Other than pulling some weeds, that’s all I did until a couple of weeks ago (mid-June).  The shade meant for the seedlings created favorable growing conditions for encroaching Bermuda grass, and it was getting tall.  So, starting at the back of the grow-zone and working my way forward, I began a comprehensive forest maintenance job:

  • pulling Bermuda to reduce its mass and use of water meant for seedlings
  • mounding leaf  mulch around the most vigorous and well-placed seedlings
  • reorganizing shed structures to protect those seedlings, adjusting for summer’s shadow pattern
  • carrying containers full of water to trickle on the selected seedlings, giving them a deep soak without watering the surrounding ground.

Seedlings and Bermuda in untended, sun-baked areas are crisping out. Infants under shade structures are thriving, most now between three and seven-inches tall.

A ten-inch tall seedling has leaves five inches long, two-and-a-half inches wide.  (I know which tree that acorn came from.)

But the true forest phenomenon is one Baby Champion Oak.  Currently growing about one-half inch per day, it is now twenty-nine inches tall.  All it needed was some shade and a little water.

That’s right folks.

An acorn I planted last October is now a tree over two feet tall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last September, my front lawn was a flat area of hay-dry grass stubble.  As noted in an earlier post, I decided the best way to re-landscape that patch of land would be to transform it back into a fragment of the native oak woodland it was until the first half of the last century, when it became a plum orchard that eventually turned into a dry, treeless slope covered completely  in star thistle, and transformed again into a residence with lawns and growing trees of several landscape varieties.

First, I collected acorns from under the oaks out back .  It was a mast year, so I had five plastic bins full.  I stored them in the garage, out of the heat. When cooler weather brought Fall rain, I used oak leaves to blanket the front lawn four to five inches deep, hoping it would smother out dormant grass by depriving it of sunshine, and break down into mulch.

When I finally thought it was time o scatter the acorns, I discovered most of them had worm holes, and those at the bottom of the bins were covered in black mold. “Dang!” I thought, “A year’s harvest wasted.”  I scattered them anyway, kicking leaves over them for cover, sure that not one would sprout.

And I was right, not one acorn sprouted — all of them did.  By mid-spring my lawn was a nursery for several hundred infant oak trees.  For the first month, I did nothing to assist or interfere with the growing.

For several days I watched a flock of seven flickers hunt assiduously for the toyon berries I had scattered with the acorns.  They found about all of them.  Just as well, for later I decided having a bunch of toyon mixed in with the oaks would make too dense of a shrubby wilderness.  I’m hoping the flickers managed to plant some of those seeds in good spots elsewhere.  So many kinds of birds love the berries, and toyon is native to California.

As the summer heat moved in, I put up an ugly hodgepodge of boards and rigid-foam insulation sheets leaning on plant pots and patio chairs to create shade over seedlings that had sprouted in the prime growing zone: not too close to the house. or sidewalk, or power lines.

Last month I gave the growing zone one deep soak to help the fragile sprouts along. Yesterday, I got selective, giving a second deep watering only to the  healthiest-looking seedlings that are placed well in the landscape. I am amazed at the vigor of some of these baby trees. I now have one baby champion oak that is 18 inches tall. After I watered it, I think it grew another inch before sundown.

Now I’m cleaning up the nursery a bit. Poorly placed oak seedlings are snipped out, and scattered weeds pulled (the mulch makes that easy.)    I’m rearranging and reducing the shade structures to protect just the selected seedlings, and mulling over ways to make structures that look nicer.  They need to be something the Delta breeze won’t blow over.

Since the deep soak, Bermuda grass has come roaring back in, so I’m hand-pulling to reduce its mass, but I’m not trying to get rid of it completely.  It acts well as a net to keep the leaf mulch in place as it decomposes.  I’ll probably fashion some kind of trunk guards when the trees are bigger, so I can use a line trimmer to keep the Bermuda in check. Eventually, the trees will overwhelm the Bermuda with their shade and little need for water during the summer.

With those trees shading the front lawn, the house will be cooler all summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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@BeaGoode: Twitter’s back

That’s a relief.

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@BeaGoode: did Twitter break?

Early June 1, 2016.  One week before the California primary.  My Twitter account freezes.  I can’t log in.  Anyone else having this problem?

By the way, I’m still for Hillary.  Mailed my ballot in last week.

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I Want to Vote for Clinton/Sanders

The way I see it, Progressives could win big with a Clinton/Sanders ticket.

Right now, as the people inspired by Bernie Sanders are digging into coin purses and checking under couch cushions to scrape together something to donate to his campaign, the Koch brothers, health insurance companies, oil-fracking companies, and big pharma are pouring a river of cash into every close congressional race in the country.

They want to make sure Congress remains in the firm grasp of Republicans, because then it won’t matter who gets elected President: no progressive legislation will have a chance to make it to the President’s desk for signing.

I’ve seen it happen too many times before. A candidate holds out hope for positive change, gets elected, then is called a disappointment because Republicans in control of Congress block everything the Democratic President tries to accomplish.

If Progressives want to see actual progress this time around,  then we need to vote for Hillary Clinton for President and Bernie Sanders for Vice President.

Let the two combine their campaign war chests now, instead of spending so much on fighting each other, and run a combined campaign against any Republican who gets in the way. Let them form a united front against the regressives, while Progressives throw support behind progressive congressional candidates across the country. If we can get Congress back under Democratic control, a Clinton/Sanders administration would have a chance of pushing through progressive goals.

While Hillary deals with whatever global or national crisis walks in the door each day, Bernie can focus on strong-arming members of Congress to get the votes needed to pass progressive legislation. Instead of being pulled in a hundred different directions at once by presidential duties, he could concentrate sustained energy on what he already knows best – Congress and the US economy.

And Hillary could hit the ground running in regards to foreign policy. Experience may not be everything necessary to do a good job, but it sure can save time when a person is being deluged with information about complicated situations. Hillary would be able listen to her advisors without being dependent on their opinions (as has happened in some other administrations), because as a former Secretary of State, she already knows the turf and has met many of the major players.

So my vote is Hillary for Head of State, and Bernie for Head of Getting Progressive Legislation Through Congress.

 

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Show Me to the Gun Show

by Deanne Gwinn (flash fiction)

Hog Glockson ran a polishing cloth along the last long dark barrel to bring out the “this-means-business” gleam. He nudged the semi-automatic slightly so it lined up with the rest of the inventory spread down his table.

Satisfaction filled him like a rich cappuccino, grande. Business was going to be good today, turning cold, hard gun metal into a new Harley for his kid’s birthday. The president’s executive order on gun sales had galvanized the second amendment cherry pickers. They were already lined up at the glass doors on the other side of the building, eager to pick through the offerings, looking for something solid, reliable, and deadly.

Hog’s little fruit stand had something for everyone.

Of course, there were a lot of other tables. A lot of competition. But that was the American way. Profit to the businessman who could offer his customers the best quality and the best deals. Hog was comfortable with that, because he was a fantastic businessman. A winner.

Across the room, the manager unlocked the doors and people flooded in, filling the building with echoing voices and footsteps.

While he waited for his first customer, Hog bent to put the polishing cloth back in a case under his table.

“What does the word ‘regulated’ mean?”

Hog looked up. A man stood across the table from him, bemusement on his stubbled face. Hog thought the guy looked a little rough, but he couldn’t be all bad. Under his long-sleeved plaid flannel he wore a red t-shirt with the picture of an adorable little girl holding a kitten.

“You talking to me?” said Hog.

The guy seemed a little dazed, so Hog wasn’t sure.

“Yeah. I think you’re the person who can best answer that for me.”

“Well, I guess regulated means having rules and laws and people who make sure people pay attention to them. But I’m no dictionary. Can I interest you in a sweet firearm here? I’ve got something to fit any person’s requirements.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’m eligible. You know. Background checks. I was in – “

“That’s OK, Bro. You don’t need to tell me your history. We don’t do the checks here, so if you want to buy something –”

“No. Actually, I’m good. I went online a couple weeks ago and got this.” The man reached under his long shirt and produced a small handgun to show Hog. “No checks required online — yet.”

Hog made a wry face. “I know. That president’s got plenty of people upset about that. But your pistol, that’s a pretty inferior product. Doesn’t have any power. I hope you didn’t pay much for it. Let me see it. I’ll show you what I mean.”

“I’d better not. It’s loaded. Don’t want to cause any accidents here.”

Hog gave a laugh and nodded. “Yeah, you do have to be careful with things like that.”

“Actually,” said the man, “I wanted to show you this.” He reached in a pants pocket and pulled out a bent-up, folded paper to hand Hog. “I was wondering if you recognize this kid.”

The gun seller unfolded the picture. A pale, scrawny boy of about seventeen looked back at him.

Hog shook his head. “Can’t say as I’ve ever seen him, but you know I get so many people coming by. I wouldn’t remember.”

“Yeah. Some people you remember better than others.” A shadow of despair crossed the man’s face. “Anyway, the kid’s name is Charley, but he goes by the name Loki.”

“Give me your cell number. I’ll call you if I see him.”

“Oh, I know where he is. They put him back in a psych ward. I guess they realized they never should have let him out.”

That puzzled Hog. “If you know where he is, why’d you show me the picture?”

“Because that’s the boy who murdered my little girl. And you sold him the gun.”

 

 

 

 

 

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The City (the elevator pitch)

[flash fiction by Deanne Gwinn]

This piece is dedicated to #FormationWeek  and City Bloc @bccbloc.

So, there’s this huge plain. Part is desert, part prairie, part hills – you know – some forests here and there, rivers, ocean-front property. It’s a lot of land.

And there are tribes of people scattered around. A lot of them, but none are very big at first, and each tribe is adapted to the part of the plain it’s on. Like, wearing grass skirts, or sealskins, or long robes to keep out sun and sand, that kind of stuff. And each tribe has its own way of doing things. Some build canoes. Some ride camels. Some herd reindeer. Some plant turnips and build castles.

At first, no tribe knows much about any of the others.

Now smack in the middle of this plain is a huge, super-rugged mountain. I mean, it’s big. It’s a behemoth everyone can see, no matter where they are on the plain. And no one knows what’s on the top of that mountain. There’s a lot of speculation, but no one knows.

Now and then, trekkers from different tribes climb the mountain to find out what’s up there. Once in a rare while, a trekker comes back to tell their tribe they glimpsed a beautiful city that covers the top of the mountain. This city is always billed as perfection – the kind of place anyone would dream of moving to someday.

Whenever that happens, the tribe’s wealthy ruling class tells their tribe the trekker is lying. I mean, it’s like a prerequisite or something, because rich people think if everyone goes to look for that city, the rich people will lose control of the tribe, and there goes their wealth.

However, as word about the city spreads, more and more people believe the trekker, and want to find a way there. The problem is, the only way to the city is up some side of this terribly rugged mountain. It’s a daunting journey, but people figure if the trekker from their tribe was able to find the city, then they can, too, as long as they stick to the same path their trekker took.

It’s never an easy path. All sides of the mountain are craggy and cliffy, and full of fissures and deceptive peaks, so the path always has a lot of tough places and switchbacks and really steep climbs. The trekkers always go to a lot of trouble to blaze a good path, to keep followers from plunging over a cliff. It’s a perilous hike, but people keep going because they’re certain they can find the city as long as they stick to the path their trekker blazed for them.

Then as the various tribes get larger, and paths up the mountain are more numerous, members of different tribes come close to each other during the climb.  Sometimes, their paths even cross, because they’re trying to avoid the same cliffs.

For some people, this is a really scary thing. After all, a person from a different tribe is a stranger, wearing strange clothing, and following a strange path. So it’s natural for people to be scared.

See, all creatures evolved to be wary of strange things, because a strange thing might be something dangerous. You just don’t know at first if it’s dangerous or not, so you assume it’s dangerous. It’s safer that way. But if a strange thing remains non-threatening, or is even helpful, eventually it will no longer be seen as potentially dangerous. It becomes part of the normal environment, and is not something to fear.

Also, some people who fear those on a different path feel threatened because they have a right/wrong view of the world.

That’s when people grow up thinking life is a type of math homework:  that for every problem or essay question, there’s only one right answer, which would mean any other answer must be wrong.

Right/wrong people can get very passionate about proving their answer is the only right one, because they think if their answer isn’t the only right one, it has to be wrong. And they don’t want to be wrong. They want the other people to be wrong.

Right/wrong. Us/them. White/black. Good/bad. Simple-minded.

But life isn’t math. There is more than one right answer. There is more than one way into the city on top of the mountain.

As long as a trekker finds some way into the city, that trekker has used a right path, no matter which side of the mountain that path starts on. There is more than one way to get to the top of the mountain. There is more than one right path, and they all lead to the same city.

Sometimes, when right/wrong people on one path come across strangers climbing a different path, they try to force the strangers to come over and climb their path. They’re afraid if they don’t convince everyone their path is the only right one, the whole world will think they are wrong.

They might even try to destroy the stranger’s path, just to make sure their path is seen as the right one.  Sometimes they fight, even kill, to prove their path is the right one. That makes them step off their own path, and they fall off the mountain.

Other times, when different paths cross, a person might decide to switch from one path to another. That’s OK, because all the right paths lead to the same city anyway. The only wrong paths are the ones that make a person fall off the mountain.

The important thing is for each person to follow a path that keeps them from falling off the mountain.  And it’s a lot easier for people to get to the top of the mountain if hikers help each other now and then, no matter what path they’re on.

According to rumors, getting to the city is worth the climb, because it’s full of colors and vibrant, interesting diversity, and everyone there is really nice and helpful and wants only to do good to others. And we know that has to be true, because all the other people fell off the mountain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Christmas Stroll

[flash fiction by Deanne Gwinn]

Strolling through town on Christmas Eve, the teachers paused to watch through a window as a family opened gifts.

“The star of Bethlehem on their tree makes me think of what I’ve taught,” said Jesus. “If someone offends you, turn the other cheek. Do good to each other, and have compassion.”

“Ah, yes, compassion,” said the Buddha. “Let go of desire for revenge and victory, and the desire to dominate. At all times, seek a way to peace.”

Muhammed nodded. “For many years, I sat with people of all religions, helping them resolve disputes. But my greatest lesson was the day my followers had an enemy surrounded ten to one. We could have slaughtered them all. Instead, I told my followers to give them amnesty. We presented them with generous gifts, then let them leave in peace. My actions taught compassion, and that the way of Islam is always to seek peace.”

“Yes, peace,” said Abraham. “In my time, there was so much bickering. One tribe against another, conflict after conflict, with everyone bowing to different gods. I taught them there is only one God, that everyone was just worshipping different parts of the same thing. Then I became father of many nations. So a logical person would deduce we’re all one family, right? That we should treat each other like family. Like visiting cousins — am I not right here?”

The others nodded, murmuring assent.

“So, I don’t understand,” said Abraham. “For thousands of years, we’ve been teaching them the same basic, simple truths over and over and over, and they still haven’t gotten the message?”

Great sadness settled across the teachers as they watched a teen rip wrapping paper off a new assault rifle.

 

 

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ANGRY IVORY

(Flash Fiction by Deanne Gwinn)

 

A Special Report

by Jo Farley, cultural correspondent

Rose Mae Ling opens her jewelry box to show me a set of exquisitely carved lotus blossom earrings, a gift from her grandparents. The earrings for Ling came with a matching gift for her husband, Ryan – a silver tie clip, inlaid with two creamy lotus blossoms.

“My grandparents wanted to bring good luck to our marriage,” says the 34-year-old insurance actuary from San Francisco. “They gave a pair of blossoms to each of us, to remind us we are inseparable.”

The young couple had been married two years before they could afford the trip to Asia that culminated in a four-day visit with Ling’s grandparents near the Yangste River in China.

“We were so happy,” says Ling. “Soon after marriage, I was promoted at work, and Ryan negotiated a big contract for his company. We found a cute apartment in a good neighborhood, and could afford a trip to Asia sooner than we expected, which made Ma happy. She wanted us to meet her parents before they were gone.”

On the morning of the young couple’s departure from China, Ling’s grandparents presented them with the gifts. Not wanting to appear greedy by opening them at once, Ling tucked them into her carry-on bag. Then, while walking to the taxi out front, Ling tripped on uneven concrete and sprained her ankle.

“Everyone was fussing over me,” says Ling. “It was just a little accident. I knew in a week my foot would be fine. But Ryan insisted we go to a clinic.”

They missed their flight, and had to wait two days at the airport for the next available seats. The first day, Ling suffered a mild case of food poisoning caused by a vendor’s improper refrigeration.

“My ankle was so swollen,” says Ling, “and then I got sick. Ryan waited on me hand and foot, but I felt too lousy to enjoy it.”

At the end of the second day, while Ryan stood in line to check for seat cancellations, a pickpocket took his wallet and passport. For the next week, the couple found themselves navigating a gauntlet of misplaced papers, unreturned phone calls, and obstinate clerks.

“I finally flew home by myself,” says Ling. “Ryan was stuck in China. He was in identity limbo over a month.”

In San Francisco, Ling’s mother helped her unpack. The older woman found the gifts, and told Ling to open them immediately.

“Ma insisted,” Ling says. “She knew what was in the boxes, because Grandmother had mentioned in a letter what they planned to give us. In Chinese culture, the lotus blossom brings good luck. Ma thought the blossoms would stop our string of bad luck. She even told me to send the tie clip to Ryan so he could come home right away. But I was afraid it would get lost.”

Ling did not believe in superstitions. To make her mother happy, though, she agreed to wear the earrings every day. Yet the bad luck continued.

“The next problem — I felt it was my fault,” says Ling. “I was worried about Ryan, distracted. I had trouble sleeping, so I couldn’t concentrate at work.”

Ling’s employer was tolerant at first, but after a couple weeks, he warned the young woman her performance would need to improve. She was making too many mistakes.

Ryan finally flew back to San Francisco after his father, a prominent business executive in New York, asked an associate in China to intervene.

“I was so relieved when Ryan got home,” says Ling. “I thought, now life will be normal. We’ll be happy again. Ma thanked the lotus blossoms, and told Ryan to wear the tie clip every day.”

However, normalcy did not return. Rose Mae Ling still couldn’t concentrate. She lost her job.

Suspecting a neurological problem, Ling consulted a series of doctors, who found nothing wrong with the young woman. To treat her symptoms, they prescribed sleeping pills, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, and stimulants. Ling gained weight rapidly, adding 45 pounds to her slight frame, and developed acne for the first time. Weighing 160 pounds, and feeling ugly, she dragged herself through each day with dulled senses and overwhelming fatigue.

“It was like I had turned into a warty walrus crawling through a cardboard world,” says Ling. “Everything looked the same color, and two-dimensional. Food had no flavor. I had no ambition or energy. I felt like a zombie.” She laughs. “One doctor told me it must be substance abuse, because he had no other explanation. Then he gave me another prescription.”

Deeply concerned, Ryan did as much housework as he could, but his career with the multi-national corporation demanded most of his time. He had to travel frequently. With his wife’s income gone, and three year’s worth of vacation time spent on China, the young man could not afford to slack off at work.

“We were afraid we’d lose our apartment,” says Ling.

Their troubles increased, for now Ryan also had concentration problems, and insomnia. They thought it was stress, and jet lag from frequent flights back East.

Ling’s mother expressed anger at the doctors who had not helped her daughter. She dropped by every afternoon to plead with Ling to consult a spirit medium who could track down the cause of all the bad luck, and advise them how to counter it.

“Ma was convinced we had angered a household spirit in China,” says Ling. “She also thought the taxi driver there had cursed us because he was jealous of our happy marriage. Ma asked all her friends for advice, and kept giving me names of spirit mediums in Chinatown. I thought it was nonsense.”

While Ling scoffed at the idea of talking to a spirit medium, she agreed about the doctors, feeling the medications had done more harm than good. Ling weaned herself from all except dietary supplements, and took daily walks to lose weight, reduce stress, and regain optimism. She lost a few pounds, and the acne began to clear up.

Then disaster struck.

After representing his company at a trade show in Hong Kong, Ryan flew to Nepal to scout business prospects. A few days later, the phone woke Ling at midnight. It was Ryan’s supervisor. An earthquake had hit Nepal, and Ryan was missing.

Weeks passed with no word about Ryan. Desperate for answers, Ling finally gave in to her mother’s insistence, and went to see a spirit medium recommended by the aunt of one of her mother’s friends.

“He kept staring at my ears,” says Ling.“The whole time I talked about all the bad luck, he stared at my ears. By the time I told him everything, I felt like my ears were larger than an elephant’s. But Ban Lu was the first person to give me answers that made some sense.”

***

Ban Lu is a spirit medium I tracked down in the heart of Chinatown to interview for a report on whether superstition influences the lives of modern Asian-Americans. He is the person who sent me to see Rose Mae Ling.

An elfin wisp of a man, gray and wrinkled, this native of Thailand lives in a cramped two-room apartment. He is as shy as a rainforest creature reluctant to come out of hiding. During the interview, he spoke only in whispers. He dare not make much noise, he told me, because he walks too close to the spirit world and might awaken something evil.

“Unfortunate people come to me every day,” said Ban Lu. “More every day. I see so much misfortune among Chinese and others. Often, they don’t like it when I tell them the cause of their unhappiness.”

He looked down and shook his head. “One young woman, Rose Mae Ling, wears earrings made of angry ivory. I told her she should feed those earrings to the ocean, and burn pictures that show her wearing them. But she will not, because she doesn’t want to upset her mother.”

After serving green tea from a glazed pot painted with peacocks, Ban Lu gave me a history lesson.

Ever since the first blossoming of ancient Asian cultures, ivory artifacts have been held in high esteem. Prohibitively expensive, ivory could belong only to wealthy people. Intricate ivory carvings and inlays decorated Chinese palaces, houses of the high caste in India, and the temples of Siam (now Thailand).

In Siam, people also used elephant images in religious art, and kept live elephants on temple grounds. The Chinese were not as interested in live elephants, but everyone wanted ivory, because it was a mark of high status.

[A paper written by Carl Bishop in 1921 points out that wherever Chinese populations spread into elephant habitat, human demand for ivory and agricultural land drove the massive animals out of the region. Recent discoveries reveal an entire species of straight-tusked elephants may have been driven to extinction by expansion of Chinese feudal states in Northern China.]

“Modern economic reform in China means common people have money now,” said Ban Lu. “They buy ivory for status, and give it to others to impress them.”

Unfortunately, said Ban Lu, elephant tusks have a unique property that even the master carvers of ancient China never suspected.

“Ivory is a spirit sponge,” he explained. “Elephants being slaughtered are angry, so their ivory becomes angry. If angry ivory enters a house, the ivory already there absorbs the anger. It’s bad luck. If people bring enough ivory into a country, it may cause disasters that sound like ten thousand stampeding elephants. Floods, earthquakes, landslides, bombs, fires.”

Ban Lu also believes ivory absorbs grief when elephant calves watch their parents die, and absorbs the terror of African villagers being raped and beheaded by lawless militias using weapons bought with poached ivory.

Ban Lu sipped his tea. “A true lotus blossom brings good luck,” he said, “but a blossom carved of ivory is only ivory. Nothing about ivory brings good luck. Elephants have ivory, and are killed for it. It’s all angry ivory.”

Ban Lu pointed at the tea pot, and compared people who own ivory to the peacocks fanning their tails. “The decoration catches society’s eye,” he said, “but the feathers are an unlucky weight that drags the birds down when they try to fly above the trees.”

Ban Lu believes Rose Mae Ling sprained her ankle because the ivory earrings remembered how the elephant fell after poachers shot it. The couple missed their flight because a dead elephant cannot travel. Ling got sick at the airport because decaying elephant corpses foul waterholes. Ryan lost his passport because poachers rob elephants of their tusks. Ryan could not leave China because massacred elephants cannot find their way home.

The ivory earrings, said Ban Lu, distracted Ling with ghostly screams and bellows of dying elephants. That’s why she made so many mistakes at work. She gained weight because a motherless elephant calf is always hungry, and she lost ambition because a motherless calf does not know which direction to go.

Ban Lu believes Ryan was lost in Nepal because people’s demand for ivory drives elephants into extinction. They can no longer be found.

***

Rose Mae Ling has lost hope she will ever hear from her husband. She gently closes the jewelry box.

“I’m using Photoshop,” she says, “to remove those earrings from pictures. I ordered plastic earrings that look similar to the ivory ones. They’ll fool my mother until she has her cataracts fixed.”

Ling stops and puts a hand to her forehead.

“Just listen to me,” she says. “I sound like a superstitious auntie. It’s embarrassing, but as soon as I can, I’m going to send those ivory earrings to the bottom of the ocean.”

 

If you have a story about bad luck that can be traced to owning ivory, tell us at #angryivory .

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In a Xenon World

IN A XENON WORLD (Flash Fiction)

I have a spectacular view of the valley.

From the veranda of my cabin high above, I can see across to the mountain slopes on the other side, the fringe of green forest near the timberline, and peaks silhouetted against the deep, saturated blue of the sky.

I’m told the lovely deep blue of the sky is caused when red light in the sun’s spectrum gets absorbed as it strikes the Earth. The red light doesn’t bounce back up to muddy the blue color.

That’s one benefit.

I guess my parents liked living in the valley because it was a better place to raise children. Green lawns, playgrounds and soccer fields, all that. Later, I guess they just didn’t have the energy to move, even though air quality had deteriorated, and the neighbors became disruptive.

Mom gave up gardening roses, preferring to spend the day indoors with her rejuvenating oxygen tank while she lounged on the couch to watch programs about parents battling over custody of the kids. Every parent always promised they were the one who could provide a better life for the child.

My parents hadn’t paid much attention when the nearby power plant shut down.

The news lady said the light water reactor had been in operation for over sixty years and was no longer considered safe, that investigators discovered a series of cover-ups about incidents when radiation was accidentally vented into the atmosphere. None of the incidents was significant, though, so there was never any immediate danger. Each incident just caused bits of radiation to be sprinkled into the air, like a few grains of salt sprinkled into a pitcher of water.

However, investigators had also discovered radiation was eating a hole through the top of the containment dome, and now only seven inches of concrete kept a massive release of radiation out of the atmosphere.

So they shut the power plant down and decommissioned it. People knew about it, but the topic wasn’t interesting enough to discuss at neighborhood block parties. The power plant issue got the attention of valley inhabitants, though, when electric bills went up.

My folks and others in the valley wrote letters of complaint. How could they keep the house temperature at 74 during the winter if the monthly bill was going to be hundreds of dollars? How could they run the AC all summer, and keep their water feature’s recirculating pump going 24/7? Heck, they even had to think twice now before using the automatic ice tea maker.

Everyone cheered when the power company broke ground on a new power plant, a cutting-edge, innovative design that eliminated design flaws in the old-style light water reactor. Neighbors held excited discussions about all the great features of this new design, and Fred Frump became our local expert on the issue.

“It’s safe. There’s no possibility of a meltdown,” said Fred. “It’s got a plug of electrically-cooled salt. In the old plant, when the power went out, the pumps would stop pushing water through the system to keep it cool, so the fuel got a hotter and melted through the reactor floor. With this design, when power goes out, the plug melts. The fissioning molten salts drain into a pit to stop the reaction.”

“You don’t say!” My dad was stoked. “That is so cool! How long does it take for the fissioning salts to cool down? What do they do with the cool stuff? How do they get it out of the pit? How do they get the plant started again?”

“The report didn’t say,” said Fred. “But I heard this new reactor will be cheaper to run because it uses the cast-off fuel from old power plants. The new design squeezes energy out of fuel the old plants thought was all used up, and the waste from this plant won’t be nearly so radioactive.”

“How ever do they do that?”

“The old plants used fuel rods packed with uranium pellets. The process of fission produced gases, like xenon and krypton, which absorb neutrons. It’s like throwing baking soda on a fire. And the rod cladding trapped the gases in with the pellets. It poisoned the fuel.” Fred sipped his beer. “So this new design – it’s genius – they aren’t using fuel rods and uranium pellets. They melt uranium salts and let the gases boil off. The krypton and xenon just drift away so they don’t slow the reaction. That reactor keeps right on reacting and heating water to make steam to keep those turbines churning out energy.”

“Usin’ spent fuel from other nuke plants, ‘eh?” Old man Slurry was a little slow on the uptake. “So how’r they planning to get that high-level radioactive waste over to the new plant?”

“Oh, trucks, trains, I don’t know,” said Fred. “The report didn’t say.” He beamed. “Isn’t it great?”

Old Man Slurry’s attention drifted. “Hey, did you hear? They found rusty bolts in that train trestle over Harper Canyon River. Looks like they need to rebuild it. And they’re planning to upgrade the freeway overpass. I guess they don’t think it’s earthquake safe.”

“People are always worried about earthquakes,” said Fred. “You get a little rockin’ and rollin’. How bad can an earthquake be? Myself, I like a little rock ‘n roll now and then.”

The other neighbors laughed.

“What about that stuff they’re boiling off,” asked my dad. “Those radioactive gases. What do they do with that?”

“The report didn’t mention that either,” said Fred, “but I expect they’ll catch it and bottle it to sell to hospitals and light manufacturers. Xenon is expensive stuff, but it makes a great anesthetic and filler for gas-discharge lighting.”

“Whoa,” said Fran from down the street. “Maybe I should call my stock broker and invest in xenon light.”

“An anesthetic, hunh?” said Old Man Slurry. “So if they have any trouble that lets xenon and krypton gas out into the atmosphere, we’ll all just go to sleep and not cause the power company any trouble?”

The neighbors laughed.

The power company built the new Harper Valley Molten-Salt Reactor. My folks kept the AC going all summer, and used krypton- and xenon-filled lights to illuminate nighttime barbecues in the backyard.

No one paid much attention to occasional news reports that the power plant couldn’t always adequately contain the radioactive gasses. Heck, a little release here, an accidental venting there – the sky was big place, and those gases just mingled in invisibly, drifting away. No immediate danger.

Of course, we had earthquakes now and then. Some did cause structural damage in the neighborhood, and every year a few big windstorms whipped through the valley, cracking fragile things. Neighbors would line up at the home improvement stores to buy new windows and pipe fittings and xenon lights. Xenon lighting was so cheap by then, we could replace it without a second thought. The city issued publications, trying to educate people about proper disposal of damaged or burnt out lighting. However, that issue never was the topic of discussion at block parties.

After a few decades, some troublemaker investigating the molten-salt reactor power plant reported that structural deterioration due to constant exposure to radiation had been causing more leaks than the power folks and Nuclear Regulatory Commission wanted to admit.

A few years later, a meteorologist and an atmospheric scientist went on the news to say that, since most of the year our valley didn’t have a lot of wind to ventilate it, radioactive isotopes of xenon and krypton accumulated over it, building up to a significant concentration. That’s when we learned a basic fact of science: krypton and xenon are heavier than oxygen and nitrogen. That meant xenon and krypton gas drifted down, instead of up, accumulating in the layer of air blanketing the floor of our valley. Sort of like smog in LA or China, with the little added zing of radiation.

Some physician tweeted his prediction of a 50% increase in number of lung cancer deaths in our valley over the next fifty years. But what did he know?

We also learned there’s a reason xenon gas gives off a lovely bluish light when it’s packed in a glass tube and electrically agitated. The xenon absorbs longer (redder) wavelengths of the light spectrum.

Unfortunately, most land-based oxygen-producing plants on this planet use the long waves of red light to power their photosynthesis oxygen-factories. So in our valley, increasing levels of xenon in the layer of air where the plants grew filtered out the light waves plants need for energy, shutting down all those little oxygen factories. Plants got sickly, and died off. Oxygen was no longer being produced on the valley’s floor.

We all became very aware of another little scientific fact: because xenon and krypton are much heavier than either nitrogen or oxygen, concentrations of those gases displaced the air we needed to breathe, like carbon monoxide invisibly accumulating inside a house, preventing oxygen from entering the blood streams of sleeping residents.

The tweeting physician went on the evening news to tell us humans evolved to survive in a very narrow spectrum of atmospheric conditions. Normal air is 78% nitrogen, and almost 21% oxygen. A healthy adult human male will run into trouble if the percentage of oxygen drops by only one percent. When the concentration of oxygen drops from 21% to 16%, he’s in deep shit.

We never did get told the oxygen requirements of other species – I guess that wasn’t important enough to study – but we were still above 20% when I began to see drunken bees and beetles wobbling about on the sidewalk. As the oxygen percentage crept under 19%, they died in swarms. Normally, the ants would have carried away the insect carcasses, but I guess by then there weren’t any ants.

That spring, Mrs. Whatcher, the local birder, told us songbird nests were failing. Eggs hatched, she said, but the little peepers died before they fledged.

Rich people moved to fourth floor apartments and planted gardens on the roof. Poor people fought each other over lengths of two-by fours so they could fashion themselves crude stilts.

I decided we had to move the day my daughter’s canary died.

(First draft posted at www.writerscarnival.ca on May 26, 2015)

 

 

 

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Insurgent Oaks

 

I’m starting an insurrection.

If you live in an area that was once native oak woodland, join me. I’m talking to you, Oakland, Oak Hills, Oak View, Shady Oaks, Oak Ridge, Royal Oaks, Oak Park, Oakmont – all of you who live where communities and streets and shopping malls have names that include the word “oak,” but actual oak trees are as rare as the varied thrush, I’m talking to you.

Oak woodlands have been under attack for too long. One massacre after another is carried out in the name of Progress and Economic Development or Convenient Shopping. The army of Progress is relentless, using an arsenal of heavy machinery and chain saws to butcher woodland, while the only way oaks can fight back is by dropping acorns.

They need our help.

We can’t wage an all-out campaign to dig up suburbia and city-scapes, so instead we’ll need to advance by occupying one tiny spot of land at a time: a front yard here, a backyard there, that little scrap of no-man’s land at the end of the next street over.

In their natural state, oak woodlands provide food and shelter for over two hundred and fifty species of animals and insects. Maybe our re-landscaping efforts won’t lure black bears and white-tailed deer into our yards to browse on acorns, but if enough people join the insurrection, we can create urban forests that cool our neighborhoods, help clean the air, and provide food for some types of birds struggling to avoid extinction. (According to the Audubon Society, one-half of North American bird species are now in danger from habitat loss and climate change. They need our help.)

Even if you aren’t worried about birds, you should consider what this insurrection can do for you.

A yard shaded by large oaks can reduce a house’s air conditioning needs by thirty percent, and increase property value by thousands of dollars. One tree can supply the oxygen used by two people daily, and reduce the amount of particulates soiling the air. And native oaks fit naturally into drought-resistant landscaping, since they evolved to survive California’s arid summers without irrigation. All they need is winter rainfall. The recent dry winters and record high summer temperatures, however, have put them under stress, making summer soakings necessary in some cases.

A forest of any kind cannot be grown in one year. That means we must rebel against near-sighted ideals of what constitutes “curb appeal.” If you get any flak, tell your homeowners’ association to wise up. We aren’t competing for a “Best Manicured Landscape” award, or trying to grow pictures for magazine covers. We’re fighting climate change and species extinctions. If you’re afraid what your neighbors will think, post a sign like mine: “Insurgent Oaks, Chapter One.”

And throw away those ads for artificial turf. It’s a bad joke. Plastic grass was invented to perpetuate the charade that we all live in rain-soaked English countryside, and is worse than the kind of grass that needs water, having no carbon uptake, no oxygen production, and no decomposition to provide soil nutrients. Artificial grass feeds nothing, and is probably made out of fossil fuels.

In preparing to carry out your part of the insurrection, you might want to consult a native plant website or nursery so you can find out about techniques like “sheet mulching” to get rid of lawns without a lot of digging. You might ask your community college to offer on-line classes on converting sterile lawn-scape into vibrant oak woodland.

Personally, I’m trying the quickest way first. If that doesn’t work, the correct way can come later.

I have access to oak trees, so this fall I collected bins of dropped acorns and stored them in the garage out in the sun. Now that storms are bringing down the leaves, I’m dumping leaves by the cartload on the lawn out front. People probably think it looks awful.  I don’t care, because I can envision what that yard will look like in fifteen years, thirty years, fifty years.

Starting this project by cutting out sod that has been infested with Bermuda grass for decades would be labor-intensive futility. Bermuda growing beyond the lawn’s boundary would quickly invade any fill-dirt brought in. So I’m leaving the summer-parched grass, butch-cut, where it is, optimistic that my drifts of leaves will smother out much of it, adding nutrients to the soil in the process. If the grass is kept short, never watered in the summer, and covered with new drifts of leaves every fall, it should eventually become a vestigial presence that can be managed with minimal labor.

Soon, I’ll scatter acorns where oak trees would be welcome, then kick leaves around to give them a light cover. Winter storms should take care of the watering, but if the leaves start looking crispy, I’ll haul out the garden hose. By spring, I could have mulch drifts filled with treasure – sprouting acorns.

Acorns sprouting in good spots can be left in place and marked with tree guards – gallon jugs or large cans with top and bottom cut out. A sapling that sprouts under power lines can be left to grow for years before it needs to be pruned down. In the meantime, that poorly-placed tree will provide leaf mulch, shade, and acorns. Excess sprouting acorns can be lifted into mulch-filled containers (tall to promote deep root growth), that are grouped in a shady area where it’s easy to water them.

In natural settings, saplings grow in the shade of mature oaks. They need to develop deep roots before they can withstand pitiless summer sun on their own. Therefore, seedlings in sunny yards should be protected with manufactured filtered shade. You might find more aesthetically-pleasing, inexpensive options, but for now I’m using tipped-over plastic lawn chairs, a picnic table, and propped-up pieces of painted plywood – whatever works without creating a fire hazard.

If the drifts of leaves get too dry before they turn into mulch, they may need to be bagged or covered with tarps during summer to reduce fire danger. Last summer, I had ten bags of leaves crowded together under a tupelo tree during the heat waves. The bags kept the root zone cool and moist. When the rains started, I spread the leaves back on the ground so they can decompose.

A caveat: don’t use eucalyptus leaves in the planting drifts. Eucalypts produce tannins that hinder the growth of other plants, to reduce  competition for water. I use sloughed-off eucalyptus bark to mulch areas where I don’t want anything to grow.

Later, the container seedlings can be given to members of an Insurgent Oaks Collective, or smuggled onto no-man’s land. Protected by tree-guards, and watered judiciously through the first few summers, those seedlings can turn a throw-away scrap of land into a life-saving rest-stop for migrating birds. (It helps if you also maintain a clean water source nearby – in a place that has nowhere for cats to hide.)

Other than gloves, rakes, garden carts and containers, this insurgency doesn’t need weapons. No chain saws or axes, shovels or earthmovers are allowed. Don’t remove an established tree of any species, unless it’s yours and you have a very good reason for doing so (like disease, invasive status, or safety concerns.) We have to preserve all the trees we can, because right now this planet needs all the shade it can get.

If you can’t find acorns nearby, maybe you can use social media to find a supply, or even organize an Insurgent Oaks battalion. Someone out there has acorns to share with their neighbors. Someone else has a surfeit of fallen leaves, or can haul compost, or knows a scrap of land that would make a good rest stop for migratory birds.

Don’t gather masses of acorns from parks. That could strip parks of their next generation of oaks. However, if you know of an oak woodland slated for massacre, someone should save those acorns. Please note: I am not advocating that people trespass on private property. I’m just saying every acorn dropped deserves the chance to become food for wildlife, or a mighty oak tree.

Don’t bring in oak leaves (or oak firewood) from distant areas. That could spread diseases and beetles that kill off established trees. And don’t try to dig up saplings. The process is likely to kill them. It’s much easier to work with acorns sprouting in leaf mulch, anyway.

Although strong trees should be able to survive on just the rain that falls during a winter of normal weather, seedlings and saplings that haven’t yet developed deep roots need help to get through dry stretches, especially during the triple-digit temperatures of summer. Water deeply, but infrequently. Soil that’s kept moist during warm weather promotes the growth of fungus that attacks oak roots. It can kill mature trees.

Keep an eye on all the trees during the summer, however, from the tiniest saplings to the biggest trees. If you notice crown leaves yellowing and dropping in mid-summer, that tree is suffering from drought. It needs a generous, four-day deep soak right now. The yellowed leaves will drop, but a new growth of foliage fills in. Don’t water that tree again until cold weather. During the winter, make sure trees get deep-soaked several times. If there isn’t enough rain, use the hose.

For decades, short-sighted landscaping practices have been subverting the eco-system services that native oak woodlands provide to us and other species, shortchanging us all. Let’s take back the land for the oaks, one drought-dead lawn at a time.

(First draft posted at http://www.writerscarnival.ca on Aug. 19, 2015)

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