Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Can the Iron Range have a sustainable future?

The Mesabi Daily News web site this morning has a "Breaking News" banner that "U.S. Steel to announce 700 layoffs at Minntac in Mountain Iron." I first saw it when I started to read "MnDOT committed to Highway 53 funding" following a Tweet that caught my eye. Of particular interest was the statement that
"MnDOT officials told the Virginia City Council last week that they are trying to have Cliffs Resources agree to push back the company-imposed May 2017 deadline for the Highway 53 relocation project to be completed. But they said that’s a doubtful proposition."
The May 2017 deadline reference is a year ahead of the period when the iron sector is projected by the World Bank to begin an economic recovery, according to 2012 a report prepared for the European Commission (Mapping resource prices: the past and the future). As a recovering planner, I'm well aware of the dangers of taking forecasts as a given. Never-the-less, I suspect that the World Bank used best available information in updating its Commodity Price Forecast.

World Bank (2012) Commodity Price Forecast

A comparison of the World Bank forecast with historical prices for the past 5 years leads me to believe that the forecast has been generally on target, allowing for a relatively short-lived bump up in prices during late 2012 and 2013, prices have been declining much of the past two years and that strongly suggests a depressed iron ore world market through 2018, as forecast.
.

China import Iron Ore Fines 62% FE spot (CFR Tianjin port), US Dollars per Dry Metric Ton
Source: Index Mundi: Commodities: Iron Ore 

I started looking at some of this information while thinking about and researching the whole question of sustainable mining on the Iron Range. Some have argued, incorrectly I believe, that environmental regulations are notable contributors to the problems and costs faced by mining in northern Minnesota. From what Google searches yield, Europe appears to be well ahead of Minnesota in looking at the future of indigenous ore production. The Mapping resource prices report includes a breakdown of production costs. Environmental regulations are not listed as a separate category and neither are they mentioned as a major cost factor.


My Minnesota has been among those asserting that the Iron Range needs a more diversified economy to be sustainable. One of the world's leading consulting firms highlights another way to consider why a sustainable economy for Minnesota, including the Range, is becoming more critical. McKinsey & Company, back in 2011, produced Resource revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food, and water needs. Their conclusion seems relevant to northern Minnesota's future. What do you think?
"In the 20th century, governments and businesses didn’t have to worry about resource productivity; they were able to focus on capital and labor instead. Over the next 20 years, resources needs to be put at the heart of public policy and business strategy."
Increased resource productivity implies reduced demand for the raw material, similar to the way taconite processing helped the Range recover. It might also be worthwhile to give some thought to the potential effects of climate change mitigation on the steel industry lest a certain folk singer from the North Country be found to be too prophetic.

They complained in the east, they are paying too high
They say that your ore ain't worth diggin'
That it's much cheaper down in the South American towns
Where the miners work almost for nothin'


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Monday, March 30, 2015

The map is not the place, nor the name the color

Over the past several weeks, we've taken a look at the 40 named hues of green listed in the Artist's Little Book of Color. For more than 10 percent of them, we couldn't find definitions. For many of them, internet searches yielded an array of images displaying varying hues of the same name. What started as an effort to find a "color dictionary" to better describe My Minnesota's annual greening of the natural world did not turn out at all as expected. As you probably know, green is one of the primary colors used by computers. (The other two are red and blue.) Computers specify colors as hexadecimal triplets [RrGgBb]. That's not helpful when trying to write a poem or an essay that shares the look of pale green aspen leaves after they've burst out each Spring.

poplar (aspen) leaves in May
poplar (aspen) leaves in May
Photo by J. Harrington

I think there may be a simple solution to this confusion and conundrum. I'm going to name leaf colors in an eponymous fashion, so there'll be aspen / poplar green, sugar maple green, red maple green (not to be confused with Red Green), burr oak green, norway pine green -- you get the idea. I might have thought of the hue of aspen leaves as "lime green." I might also be someone who is somewhat color blind or maybe providing a named color to someone who is. So now, instead of trying to compare colors and decide if a leaf is lime green or kelly green or hunter green or..., in the future I'll write something like "the shade of a sugar maple leaf in early May" or "the new sugar maple leaves have their own special shade of green in May"and hope that the reader has seen a sugar maple in May, or if they haven't, that their curiosity will induce them to get off the couch some May and look for and at a the leaves on a sugar maple tree. Maybe they won't care what hue sugar maple leaf green actually is but they will care that I distinguish maple trees from oaks. Using this new approach, I'll have to improve my tree identification skills.

"moss green" if I knew the genus, else just green moss
"moss green" if I knew the genus, else just green moss
Photo by J. Harrington

I  think I had it backwards with the idea that dealing with color would be easier for a writer than a painter. If I'm any example, writers seem to be concerned more with naming a color than creating it. In the real world (as contrasted with in computers) most folks know that green is made of blue and yellow. See how simple all this color stuff is? If any of you want to learn more about green hues, shades, names and symbolism (remember the Green Knight?) Wikipedia has this page on green. Finally, since I learned a lot through this exercise, and since Wikipedia mentions that in some languages "the same word can mean either blue or green," and because one reader hoped I'd be doing the color blue next, in April we'll focus on the list below of names of blue in the Little Book, and on poetry in and about Minnesota, land of sky blue waters. We may even discover that the response to 58,000+/- public comments on the PolyMet SEIS has been released and have something to say about that and or how mining is being looked at in other parts of the world.



Green

D. H. Lawrence, 1885 - 1930 

The dawn was apple-green, 
The sky was green wine held up in the sun, 
The moon was a golden petal between. 
 
She opened her eyes, and green 
They shone, clear like flowers undone
For the first time, now for the first time seen.


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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Solving for pattern

Here are the final four, not from the NCAA's March Madness, but shades of green, the final two of which have no definition that I could find. Not having a definition for woodland green I understand. There are many kinds of woodlands. No so much with Vienna, although Range Rover and Benjamin Moore seem to be among the few devoted to that shade.
Over the next month or so, we should be seeing lots more shades of green as grasses green up and trees leaf out. I was surprised to see catkins on a local birch tree yesterday. The fact that I was surprised tells me I haven't been paying enough attention to what's going on around me.

birch tree catkins have emerged
birch tree catkins have emerged
Photo by J. Harrington

Wendell Berry has written an essay titled Solving for Pattern. It's a very worthwhile read as background to many of the challenges Minnesota will face now and in the future. This weekend may, I hope, be the last time (until next Winter) we're faced with the pattern in which the local pond gets ice-covered. At least this morning's precipitation was rain drops instead of snow flakes. We may, or may not, have seen the last of Winter for now, this is Minnesota after all. But the day's keep getting longer, the sun is still moving northward in the sky and, although there may be uncertainty in the timing, the arrival of Spring is as inevitable as the arrival of April Fool's Day and Easter. At least no one has yet conflated the dates for April Fool's and our tax filing deadline. With our political gridlock and shenanigan's, there's an ironic poetic justice in that idea.

fresh ice re-covers the pond
fresh ice re-covers the pond
Photo by J. Harrington

I'm guessing from the weather forecast that the local sap-tapping season may be about over  for this year. Northern Minnesota, which is getting snow today while it rains here, may be able to go another week or so if the sap's good for syrup-making after our current string of above freezing nights. And, don't be surprised if we resurrect Solving for Pattern several times more in the next few weeks as we visit the boom and bust patterns of the mining industry.

Patterns for Arans

By Linda Norton 
We could paint semi-darkness in semi-darkness. And the ‘right lighting’ of a picture could be semi-darkness. 
                                                            Wittgenstein
                                                            from Remarks on Color 

These islands lie off the west coast of Ireland
as if nothing matters.
The people have lived here for centuries
with only a thin covering of soil over the surface.
Great use is made of the seaweed,
the cattle swimming out.

The women here are justly famous.
They weave their own tweed
and make a type of belt called criss.
The heavy Atlantic seas,
the slip stitch.
The difficulty of the patterns
are never written down.

Most impressive and rich, the trellis pattern
and the rope, the tribute to the hardworking bee.
But sometimes their knitting shows mistakes,
with a true Irish touch of nothing
really matters, a careless nonchalance
of the crossing of their cables.

And note mistakes in the simple patterns:
forked lightning or cliff paths,
small fields fenced with stone,
the ups and downs of married life,
the mosses.

The openwork has a religious
significance or none.
Sometimes the clarity of the pattern is
lost through the use of
very fine wool.

Green from the mosses, brown
from the seaweed, grey and cream
color from the stones and pebbles:
many are distinctly over-bobbled.
No matter. They are too lovely
to be lost. Wool and knitting
leaflets can be obtained.

In no case is the whole pattern given.
There are certain gaps and yawns
and part of the pattern is left out
as if it doesn’t matter,
or was too lovely,
so was lost.

Some of the simple patterns
are charming for children’s jerseys.
This one, for example,
would be lovely on a child.


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Saturday, March 28, 2015

What climate change changes

Today and tomorrow we'll reach the end of our original list of "shades of green." Then have a day or so to consider what, if anything, we think we've learned, other than there are indeed many shades of green. (For example, I had to really cheat to find definition and image links for Schnitzer's Green that weren't links to  German auto tuner AC Schnitzer.) Wrapping up our study in green will bring us to the beginning of National Poetry Month.
Later today please remember to turn off your (nonessential) lights at 8:30 tonight. That's when the ninth annual earth hour starts. If you wonder why we should bother with something like earth hour, read Rebecca Solnit's exceptional essay, The Most Important Thing We Can Do to Fight Climate Change Is Try, in the 150th Anniversary Issue of The Nation. (The entire issue is available as a download at the linked essay.) Over the past year or so I've become a fan of Solnit's writing because often, actually, usually, it helps me find hope and optimism where and when I most need them. Which reminds me, I haven't yet seen the first red-winged blackbird this Spring, but I remain optimistic it'll happen any day now that blackbird etudes will return to the neighborhood.

red-winged blackbird male
red-winged blackbird male
Photo by J. Harrington

Blackbird Etude

By A. E. Stallings 

For Craig 

The blackbird sings at
the frontier of his music.
The branch where he sat

marks the brink of doubt,
is the outpost of his realm,
edge from which to rout

encroachers with trills
and melismatic runs sur-
passing earthbound skills.

It sounds like ardor,
it sounds like joy. We are glad
here at the border

where he signs the air
with his invisible staves,
“Trespassers beware”—

Song as survival—
a kind of pure music which
we cannot rival.


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Friday, March 27, 2015

The sweetness of Spring

It's Friday, late in March. The sun is shining. The wind has stopped blowing, at least for now. Warmer temperatures are in the forecast, although that part's easy since this morning's low around here was 16F. The frost crystals sparkled beautifully in this morning's flashlight beam when I walked SiSi. Yesterday's open waters that refroze over night should be open again soon. The snow that fell earlier in the week is gone. The Department of Natural Resources has officially declared "ice out" at some metro area lakes. Song birds, raptors and waterfowl are flocking in. The Minnesota legislature is on spring break for almost two weeks. We just learned that we're due a refund on both our federal and state taxes. This may be about as good as it gets at this time of year.

I have a small favor to ask. Can any of you help me identify the reddish-brown plants growing around the trunks of the tamaracks in the photo below? I was too busy being enchanted by the overall effect and foolishly neglected to take any closeups or grab a small sample. A quick search on the internets has yielded nothing helpful. If I finally learn to be more attentive, and mindful, I may end up having to reveal my ignorance less often. But if I become more mindful, I probably won't be as troubled at having to reveal what I don't know. That sounds like a win-win.


Photo by J. Harrington

Many places are offering maple syruping demonstrations this weekend. I admit that until I read Braiding Sweetgrass, I hadn't thought about tapping and syruping as something that could be done in small quantities. We never did get around to identifying our maples. That's still something to be done before this time next year. Have a great weekend!

Cold Spring

By Lawrence Raab 

The last few gray sheets of snow are gone,   
winter’s scraps and leavings lowered   
to a common level. A sudden jolt
of weather pushed us outside, and now   
this larger world once again belongs to us.   
I stand at the edge of it, beside the house,   
listening to the stream we haven’t heard   
since fall, and I imagine one day thinking   
back to this hour and blaming myself
for my worries, my foolishness, today’s choices   
having become the accomplished
facts of change, accepted
or forgotten. The woods are a mangle
of lines, yet delicate, yet precise,
when I take the time to look closely.
If I’m not happy it must be my own fault.   
At the edge of the lawn my wife
bends down to uncover a flower, then another.   
The first splurge of crocuses.
And for a moment the sweep and shudder   
of the wind seems indistinguishable   
from the steady furl of water
just beyond her.


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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Is the future already here?

This morning I re-encountered on of my all time favorite quotations, William Gibson's "The future is already here--it's just not very evenly distributed." Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything captures much of Gibson's observation as it incorporates root causes of many of our current problems and an array of emerging solutions that could represent a better future for all of us in the 99%. She focuses on climate change but recognizes that that involves almost every factor of daily life for every one of us. If you have children, plan to have children, or care about children and the world we'll be leaving them, as well as the world we have to live in today, it's worth a read.

Minnesota's future: renewable resources like solar
Minnesota's future: renewable resources like solar
Photo by J. Harrington

Minnesota's past: diminishing resources like fossil fuels
Minnesota's past: diminishing resources like fossil fuels
Photo by J. Harrington

We know the Iron Range and other communities are hurting because of layoffs triggered by "a glut of foreign steel and declining demand in the U.S." Maybe, instead of engaging in a race to the bottom, so we don't have to cut wages along with reducing environmental protections, we should reject NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, and not try to sneak the Trans Pacific Partnership through Congress on a fast track. We need leaders focused on local solutions that move us ahead, not backwards. Instead of depending on international corporations run by overpaid executives we need to build our own capacities and local economies. On their web site pages on environmental responsibility, U.S. Steel writes:
"U. S. Steel is also committed to investing in technology to move the steelmaking process in an even more environmentally responsible direction. In the United States the best available control technology is being utilized at the new coke batteries being built at our Clairton Plant, and at our Granite City Works we partnered with SunCoke Energy to build a byproduct recovery coke making system to provide both coke and energy for our facility."
But they don't have the capital to invest in Minnesota's water quality? Think about it. What kind of businesses do we want in Minnesota's future? We could be a state that makes others green with envy. We used to be. Speaking of which, here are some more shades of green we can consider for our future.

There didn't seem to be a dictionary definition for any of today's shades of green so we cheated a bit on two of them. Even with our cheating strategy, we couldn't find any definition for pansy green. Maybe it's eponymous.

Eden, Then and Now

By Ruth Stone 
In ’29 before the dust storms
sandblasted Indianapolis,
we believed in the milk company.
Milk came in glass bottles.
We spread dye-colored butter,
now connected to cancer.
We worked seven to seven
with no overtime pay;
pledged allegiance every day,
pitied the starving Armenians.
One morning in the midst of plenty,
there were folks out of context,
who were living on nothing.
Some slept in shacks
on the banks of the river.
This phenomenon investors said
would pass away.
My father worked for the daily paper.
He was a union printer;
lead slugs and blue smoke.
He worked with hot lead
at a two-ton machine,
in a low-slung seat;
a green-billed cap
pulled low on his forehead.
He gave my mother a dollar a day.
You could say we were rich.
This was the Jazz Age.
All over the country
the dispossessed wandered
with their hungry children,
harassed by the law.
When the market broke, bad losers
jumped out of windows.
It was time to lay an elegant table,
as it is now; corporate paradise;
the apple before the rot caved in.
It was the same worm
eating the same fruit.
In fact, the same Eden.


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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Environmental justice: sustainable wild rice?

Do you know that wild rice is Minnesota's state grain, or that Renewing America's Food Traditions identifies Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and part of southern Canada, as Wild Rice Nation? Are you aware that many of the Native Americans in that region depend on wild rice (Manoomin) harvesting as a way to sustain their culture? Do you think it's reasonable that highly profitable mining companies, that can afford to pay their executives millions of dollars, claim they can't afford to meet water quality standards that would protect wild rice, because the global market for iron ore is down. Do you know that taconite processing is a measurable contributor (p 18) to Minnesota's mercury water quality issues? These questions, and many like them, are going to become more and more important over the next few years. The answers aren't always going to be simple and straight forward, because the issues and the science are complex. We're going to need to learn how to better address these kinds of complex concerns as we build a sustainable Minnesota.

MPCA's Minnesota wild rice waters
MPCA's Minnesota wild rice waters

One of the issues that I find particularly worrisome is how, if the site specific approach proposed by MPCA is accepted, can they then justify not using similar site specific standards for all the other parts of the state that are economically affected by water quality requirements, or air quality requirements for that matter. Do we let a huge hog farm off the hook because it would cost too much to treat the hogs' raw sewage and it only discharges to a ditch? How can the same governor propose buffers to protect agricultural waters from polluted runoff and think that  the Minnesota legislature will ever approve the funding needed for MPCA to staff this new approach? And finally, at least for now, how will this new approach fit with the federally authorized and approved water quality standards on Native American reservations in Minnesota?

I think the steel companies are headed for some notable corporate social responsibility concerns and the Dayton administration is looking at some interesting environmental justice issues. Responsible mining companies are becoming more aware of their need for a "social license to operate." It seems to me that Minnesota could use some education from those familiar with that concept.

early Spring, bud growth
early Spring, bud growth
Photo by J. Harrington

On a brighter note, I just noticed that the red maples in front of the house are opening their buds. They're reddish now but will turn green soon. Maybe one or more of today's shades of green will soon appear? Maybe Wendell Berry's correct about our Real Work?

The Real Work


It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.  


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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Who are we racing to the bottom?

Recently, my (much) Better Half and I put a small ding in our carbon footprint by traveling north through several counties. We went to visit Minnesota tributaries to the St. Croix River, including the Willow and Little Willow, the Kettle and the Snake. Since we were in the area, we swung a bit further north and took a look at the scenic St. Louis River in Jay Cooke State Park.

the scenic St. Louis River
Photo by J. Harrington

I recalled that the St. Louis has been in the papers recently because of continuing (and growing?) concern about mercury levels in newborns in the Lake Superior basin (the St. Louis River drains to Lake Superior). According to the Minnesota Department of Health, one in ten Minnesota infants has methylmercury levels above a "Safe" level. but, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has pulled out of an effort to set maximum mercury levels so they can conduct more research on why fish are contaminated with mercury. The St. Louis River Alliance notes that there are mercury emission sources in the basin, without naming any sources or sectors. However, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has studies on efforts to control mercury from taconite stack emissions and research on mercury methylation and sulfate cycling in NE Minnesota streams. I'm more than a little disappointed that Minnesota seems to be headed on water quality requirements on the same basis that climate change deniers maintain on Anthropogenic Climate Disruption. Peer reviewed science that leads to a 97% scientific consensus isn't enough if it gets in the way of the political or economic world view of major contributors or employers. Governor Dayton's recent claim that Minnesota's sulfate water quality standard is "outdated" has no basis in fact that I can find. It also seems to conveniently overlook the existing studies by both DNR and PCA and the obvious linkages of taconite mining as a noteworthy source of both sulfates and mercury. Minnesota deserves better. I hope that in 2016 Minnesota votes better. I wonder if the US EPA is going to let all this pass when they take a look at proposed discharge permits for taconite facilities, including any tailings basins similar to the one that recently failed in Canada or are we looking at a national campaign to subsidize industrial pollution by reducing standards that are meant to protect public health as well as wild rice?

does this really look canoeable?
does this really look canoeable?
Photo by J. Harrington

If my level of paranoia and cynicism seems even greater than usual, I've been reading Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything. Ms. Klein makes what I consider a cogent argument that the political and economic systems that allegedly serve us don't really have our interests at heart. Watching the politics of mining versus the environment in Minnesota feeds into her arguments as far as I can see, especially since our political leadership seems more interested in protecting mining profits and executive salaries more than local jobs and Minnesotans' health. If there's a global slowdown in the steel industry, having Minnesota try to win an environmental race to the bottom isn't he answer. Getting rid of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization would be better steps. In the interim, let's keep in mind that the Water Quality section of Minnesota's Sustainability Framework notes such factors as:
"When sulfate- reducing bacteria are present in aquatic systems, they convert oxidized forms of mercury to methylmercury, which biomagnifies in food webs and which typically constitutes about 90% of the mercury in fish."
That suggests some potential strategies like starving those bacteria of sulfate as a way to reduce mercury problems. Let's not make any Faustian bargains with or for mining companies.

The Gatekeeper’s Children

By Philip Levine 
This is the house of the very rich.
You can tell because it’s taken all
The colors and left only the spaces
Between colors where the absence
Of rage and hunger survives. If you could
Get close you could touch the embers
Of red, the tiny beaks of yellow,
That jab back, the sacred blue that mimics
The color of heaven. Behind the house
The children digging in the flower beds
Have been out there since dawn waiting
To be called in for hot chocolate or tea
Or the remnants of meals. No one can see
Them, even though children are meant
To be seen, and these are good kids
Who go on working in silence.
They’re called the gatekeeper’s children,
Though there is no gate nor—of course—
Any gatekeeper, but if there were
These would be his, the seven of them,
Heads bowed, knifing the earth. Is that rain,
Snow, or what smearing their vision?
Remember, in the beginning they agreed
To accept a sky that answered nothing,
They agreed to lower their eyes, to accept
The gifts the hard ground hoarded.
Even though they were only children
They agreed to draw no more breath
Than fire requires and yet never to burn.


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Monday, March 23, 2015

A sustainable economy? It's an art

Layoffs are once again hitting the Iron Range. Copper is in a worldwide slump. There's growing support to leave fossil fuels in the ground. One of the places that initially fueled the industrial revolution is looking to the future instead of the past.
"Wales led the world into fossil fuels, pioneering the changes and the challenges these fuels have brought, yet today Wales has now become a leader in the race to find new ways of delivering our wellbeing, based on new clean energy sources more suited to the economic, social, and environmental needs of the 21st century. Wales has all that is required to lead the race out of fossil fuels. It has some of the best renewable resources in Europe; wind, tidal, wave, bio-fuels. Wales has skills, training, manufacturing, innovation, connectivity and an emerging sense of national confidence. But getting the best out of such a massive triple challenge means using the time and the oil we have left to their very best effect. Despite being a world leader in many ways, the rate of transition is still far too slow to provide a reasonable chance of catalysing global agreement and preventing devastating environmental changes. There are of course technical barriers but the biggest challenges are cultural. (Zero Carbon Britain; Ashbourn; Wales Underground; BBC Wales History)"
Meanwhile, Minnesota's Senate Majority Leader, from the Iron Range, blames environmental regulations for the layoffs at taconite plants.

The St. Louis River entering Duluth Harbor
The St. Louis River entering Duluth Harbor
Photo by J. Harrington

There's an old saying among planners, or maybe that's a saying among old planners, More of the same never solved a problem. The Reserve mining leadership opposed environmental regulations too. Maybe if the Iron Range's leadership took a clue from the folks [see above] who helped start all this global industrialization, the Range could become a world leader in sustainable, or at least environmentally acceptable, mining.

It was a kid from Hibbing who wrote "He not busy being born is busy dying." Those living on the Iron Range can try to hang on to the last millennium or they can take matters into their own capable hands and choose what shade of green they want to be. The following aren't the only options but they're today's shades.
It seems to me the only thing Wales has that the Range is missing is better vision. More information regarding Wales, sustainability, and the arts can be found in a report on how artists are responding to sustainability. It's titled Culture Shift. Does anyone on the IRRRB know some northern Minnesota artists or have contacts at the Arrowhead Arts Council?

The Future

By Neal Bowers 

(Detroit, 1950) 

Because the jobs were there
and a man could get rich
working on the line, the South
retreated North to Michigan,
whole families eating crackers and baloney
by the side of the road,
changing drivers to keep
moving through corn fields
and foreign towns,
sundown and darkness,
the moon a prophecy of chrome,
the stars 10 million headlights
of the cars they would build.

Ahead lay a city bright with steel;
behind, the dark fields folded
over everything they knew;
and when they dozed
on cramped back seats, they dreamed
such dreams as the road can make,
of drifting on a lake or stream
or lying down in hay to dream of traveling,
so that when they woke to a bump,
a couch, a voice saying, “It’s your turn,”
they were lost to themselves
and took a few moments
to remember their names.

Mostly behind their backs,
the locals called them
rednecks, crackers, goddamned rebs.
Strange to be strange,
in their new neighborhoods,
to be ethnic with a thick accent
and a taste for food the grocers didn’t stock—
hog jowl and blackeyes, turnip greens,
roasting ears, souse-meat—
the butcher shrugging,
the produce man shaking his head.
Sometimes their own voices
took them by surprise,
sounding odd and out of place
in the din of a city bus, ringing
lost in the evening air when
they called their children in for supper.

At work they touched
parts of tomorrow,
next year’s models always
taking shape and vanishing,
the present obsolete, the past
merely a rumor,
all hours blurring
into one continuous moment
of finishing a fragment,
each piece the same piece,
movements identical,
endless, like a punishment in hell.

No way out but back
to their old lives, a future
they already knew by heart,
a few on the road each month
in cars they may have helped assemble,
tokens of their failed success,
legacies for boys to find
years later rusting on some lot,
banged up but still a dream
and fast enough when overhauled
to make them feel they could blast
straight into tomorrow,
as they raced their engines at each stoplight
and cruised their towns in circles.


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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Managing expectations

It's midday on a cloudy, cold March Sunday in Minnesota. The forecast snow hasn't yet started and, looking at last year's snow fall photos, we're several weeks from consistently bare ground. Two steps forward, one step back, rather than a continuous, gradual transition is how we do Spring in Minnesota, at least for now. I have no idea what Anthropogenic Climate Disruption may do to how our seasons transition. Maybe the ride will become even bumpier. At the risk of depressing you, here's what I photographed last Spring.

March 27, 2014 snowfall
March 27, 2014 snowfall
Photo by J. Harrington
April 4, 2014 snowfall
April 4, 2014 snowfall
Photo by J. Harrington
April 16, 2014 snowfall
April 16, 2014 snowfall
Photo by J. Harrington

Fortunately, at this time of year, melting occurred quickly enough that we had bare ground reappear and open water continue between snowfalls. After all, Minnesota has reached a point where I think July is the only month when we haven't had at least a trace of snowfall. I've now depressed myself enough that this week it's going to be time to buy a bunch of forsythia, since I don't expect ours to leaf out for several weeks and have doubts about whether they'll actually blossom this year. I expect Spring to look like this, no matter how rarely it happens in my yard.

cut forsythia in bloom
cut forsythia in bloom
Photo by J. Harrington
Campbell McGrath's prose poem does, I think, a masterful job describing transitions of weather and other.

The Prose Poem

On the map it is precise and rectilinear as a chessboard, though driving past you would hardly notice it, this boundary line or ragged margin, a shallow swale that cups a simple trickle of water, less rill than rivulet, more gully than dell, a tangled ditch grown up throughout with a fearsome assortment of wildflowers and bracken. There is no fence, though here and there a weathered post asserts a former claim, strands of fallen wire taken by the dust. To the left a cornfield carries into the distance, dips and rises to the blue sky, a rolling plain of green and healthy plants aligned in close order, row upon row upon row. To the right, a field of wheat, a field of hay, young grasses breaking the soil, filling their allotted land with the rich, slow-waving spectacle of their grain. As for the farmers, they are, for the most part, indistinguishable: here the tractor is red, there yellow; here a pair of dirty hands, there a pair of dirty hands. They are cultivators of the soil. They grow crops by pattern, by acre, by foresight, by habit. What corn is to one, wheat is to the other, and though to some eyes the similarities outweigh the differences it would be as unthinkable for the second to commence planting corn as for the first to switch over to wheat. What happens in the gully between them is no concern of theirs, they say, so long as the plough stays out, the weeds stay in the ditch where they belong, though anyone would notice the wind-sewn cornstalks poking up their shaggy ears like young lovers run off into the bushes, and the kinship of these wild grasses with those the farmer cultivates is too obvious to mention, sage and dun-colored stalks hanging their noble heads, hoarding exotic burrs and seeds, and yet it is neither corn nor wheat that truly flourishes there, nor some jackalopian hybrid of the two. What grows in that place is possessed of a beauty all its own, ramshackle and unexpected, even in winter, when the wind hangs icicles from the skeletons of briars and small tracks cross the snow in search of forgotten grain; in the spring the little trickle of water swells to welcome frogs and minnows, a muskrat, a family of turtles, nesting doves in the verdant grass; in summer it is a thoroughfare for raccoons and opossums, field mice, swallows and black birds, migrating egrets, a passing fox; in autumn the geese avoid its abundance, seeking out windrows of toppled stalks, fatter grain more quickly discerned, more easily digested. Of those that travel the local road, few pay that fertile hollow any mind, even those with an eye for what blossoms, vetch and timothy, early forsythia, the fatted calf in the fallow field, the rabbit running for cover, the hawk’s descent from the lightning-struck tree. You’ve passed this way yourself many times, and can tell me, if you would, do the formal fields end where the valley begins, or does everything that surrounds us emerge from its embrace?


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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Palettes of Spring

Happy World Poetry Day! Now that we're enjoying our first full day of Spring, tomorrow's weather forecast is talking about rain, snow and slush, although there was a report on Twitter yesterday that the trees along the St. Croix River are starting to show a green haze. I thought I had seen something similar in some of the nearby aspens, but wrote it off to a hallucinatory wish. It's hard to see the slight shift from Winter gray to the lightest shade of Spring's pewter, almost like the proverbial ghost in a snowstorm or black cat in a coal bin at midnight.

All of which suggests it's time to return to our consideration of shades of green. Here are today's. We're now halfway through the alphabet and slightly more than halfway through our original list.
Local fields and forests are still dominated by earth tone shades, tans and ochres, but, when the sun is shining and the clouds are sparse, there's a beautiful dappled sunlight pattern on the duff.

sunlight dappled woodland
sunlight dappled woodland
Photo by J. Harrington

Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom I remember from my long-ago schoolboy days, celebrates dappledness as Pied Beauty. How would you compare our ability to split the atom with our capacity to create this much beauty?

Pied Beauty

By Gerard Manley Hopkins 
Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.


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Friday, March 20, 2015

Happy Spring!

If you're in our time zone, Spring officially begins at 5:45 PM CDT. The waterfowl and raptors that didn't overwinter are returning. Sap in maple trees is probably all confused about what to do because the nights aren't consistently getting below freezing. (You know, one sap says to another "Did we miss the Spring run this year?") Most wildflowers won't bloom for awhile, but I've seen local reports that skunk cabbage has started to emerge. (Somehow, it just doesn't feel right writing about skunk cabbage as a wildflower.) You might want to look into the Minnesota Phenology Network (part of the USA Network) which suggests these species for monitoring. They didn't include a normal sign of Spring that many of us look forward to, Minnesota legislative adjournment sometime in mid-May.

red maple leaf out: April 8, 2014   When 2015?
red maple leaf out: April 8, 2014   When in 2015?
Photo by J. Harrington

Song for Spring Equinox


It is the first day of spring, the children are singing
(they are supposed to be sleeping) the clock is ticking
the cats are waiting for supper, one of them pregnant
kittens to herald the spring, nothing is blooming
nothing seems to bloom much around farms, just hayfields
   and corn
farms are too pragmatic, I look at ads
for hydrangea bushes, which I hate they remind me of
   brooklyn

for chinese wisteria vines, which I can’t picture
but they sound exotic and mysterious
a kind of blue purple, I decide I’ll get some

will I be disappointed, will they be yellow?
will I hate the Shetland pony we are buying
will we run out of wholewheat flour this week
before a new supply drives up from the city?

oh, it is very like being a pioneer,
but then everything is in this country, and in the country
especially. it was like being a pioneer on 5th street, too
and houston street, and amsterdam avenue
and in brooklyn, under the streetlights growing up
rollerskating at dusk with stickball games in the street
was the most pioneery of all,

it is slightly boring,
it tastes a lot of the times crossword puzzle
and ordering things thru the mail, which never come
or turn out wrong, or come the wrong color (wisteria)

I can’t blame Alan for planning to go to India
to free his kundalini, so that his ears peel
or something dreadful happens to his physique
we are built for the exotic, we americans, this landscape leaves us
as open as a piece of chocolate cream pie


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Thursday, March 19, 2015

'Twas the day before Spring's start

I really enjoyed the sunshine and 60F warmth of a week ago. Now that the local weather is back to 40F cool and cloudy, our early taste of Spring reminds me of how much I'm looking forward to its return. For now, I'll settle for noting that the oaks' marcescent leaves continue to come loose and sail down and away in our March winds.

I bet you know tomorrow is the Vernal Equinox, the start of astronomical Spring. In anticipation, I spent part of yesterday identifying a different winter wildflower before that field guide gets put away for the season. The plant in question looks like this:

Beard-Tongue or beardtongue (Penstemon sp?)
Photo by J. Harrington

The Weeds and Wildflowers in Winter guide identifies it as Beard-Tongue (Penstemon digitalis). I thought I was home free at that point. Then I checked the Prairie Plants guide. It lists three different species of Beard-Tongue: Tall, Slender, and Large-Flowered. I couldn't remember what last Summer's flowers looked like and the sketches of Winter plants look a lot alike (and I'm not a botanist) so I then thought I might make progress checking the USDA plant database for Penstemon, which they identify as beardtongue (no hyphen, no capitalization). Their listing for Minnesota Penstemons brings up 16 records. I can see I'm going to be spending time next Summer with a wildflower guide in hand and a camera sorting this out. I'll let you know how it turns out. Meanwhile, I can confirm that the St. Croix River is mostly ice free around Stillwater and, I imagine, looks something like this a few miles upstream. Our local lakes are still ice covered and the pond and stream up the road have refrozen.

St. Croix River, ice out
Photo by J. Harrington

We continue to enjoy Minnesota's two steps forward, one step back approach to Spring weather that makes me think of Carl Sandburg's wonderful poem:

FOG

THE fog comes
on little cat feet.


It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
I hope you enjoy our Spring's coming in on little cat feet, stopping, sitting on its haunches and then moving on. She'll arrive eventually.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

It's just commons sense

I'm not particularly religious, but I frequently find wisdom in religious texts. This opinion piece in the Star Tribune put me in mind of the manners my mother tried to teach me when I was much, much younger. She probably picked it up from the bible where, In Psalm 37:21 God says, "The wicked borrow, and do not repay." Remember, if you can't replace it, think twice about borrowing it. Representative Fabian's Editorial counterpoint: MPCA legislation is common sense, not politics seems to me to entirely miss a couple of key points. First, it seems to me that water should be governed by commons sense. Users borrow water, they don't own it. It belongs to all of us. Water should be returned at least as clean as when borrowed, if not cleaner (if you can't replace it, think twice about borrowing it).

would you rather swim here?
would you rather swim here?
Photo by J. Harrington

Second, there is already substantial transparency in the entire water quality standards setting and permitting process. More transparency isn't likely to result in better outcomes from the perspective of the environment or those who use and enjoy it and depend on clean water. For example, a quick search of the internet turns up a 2003 Technical Memorandum from Barr Engineering to the MPCA on phosphorus reduction efforts. It notes a range of costs and approaches, including costs for Rochester's phosphorus removal, and that phosphorus limits are set for significant industrial users to the treatment plant. I doubt that Representative Fabian is suggesting industry should be subsidized by other users of a publicly owned treatment works.

or swim here?
or swim here?
Photo by J. Harrington

Water quality regulations set the water quality standards to be met as part of an ongoing public process. (In Minnesota, 40% of our waters don't meet standards.) A discharge permit, usually publicly noticed, limits the concentration, total amount, frequency or similar factors for the pollutant to be discharged, depending on the receiving water's assimilative capacity and mixing zone. Costs can and do vary widely depending on the treatment process used and how the project was financed. Remember that for a 20 year loan at 4%, almost half the cost of repayment is interest. Make it a 30 year schedule and almost 75% of the payments are interest. The costs of Minnesota's polluted water shouldn't be, but are, felt all the way into the Gulf of Mexico. I suspect, if Representative Fabian were representing shrimpers in Louisiana, he might have a different perspective on the costs of phosphorous removal in Minnesota. It's just commons sense. As a Minnesotan who boats and fishes and enjoys our famed quality of life, I'd rather the legislature ask MPCA how it is that some industrial facilities can go 23 years without renewing their environmental permit than needlessly increase the transparency of a process that's already quite public.

Containment

By A. E. Stallings
Read the Q & A
 
So long I have been carrying myself
Carefully, carefully, like a small child
With too much water in a real glass
Clasped in two hands, across a space as vast
As living rooms, while gazes watch the waves
That start to rile the little inland sea
And slap against its cliffs' transparency,
Revise and meet, double their amplitude,
Harmonizing doubt from many ifs.
Distant frowns like clouds begin to brood.
Soon there is overbrimming. Soon the child
Looks up to find a face to match the scolding,
And just as he does, the vessel he was holding
Is almost set down safely on the bookshelf.

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