World isn’t what it used to be


My river walks up the St. Croix are now almost a daily routine. I like the walk because there are so few people, only a couple of exercise hounds and mixed with a few dog-walkers.

This morning I stopped to look at the big, fading photo-posters behind Town Hall. A realization hit me: it’s not just the amount of industry that has disappeared from the riverside, but how different those people must have been back then, 120 years ago. From the look of all those docks and the shabby buildings pressed together along the waterfront, those people were busy. They were pioneers, cutting the forests, fishing the river and building new manufacturing plants. What really struck me was the fact that the people who live in this area are not at all what they used to be.

Pioneers don’t live here any more. They live on the edge of the new frontiers—in Asia and India, or along the Amazon taming the rainforest—or in the virtual world. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with today’s local residents. But unlike their forebears—men like Zimri Heywood and his son Sam who left St. Stephen to build a fortune in San Francisco in the late 1800s—they’re more adverse to risk, perhaps more like caretakers than builders.

Opportunistic people are drawn to the frontier. Back in Heywood’s day, everyone was on the make. For example you might check out son Sam’s connection to the formation of the University of Southern California at Berkeley. The speculation and feather-nesting deals conducted by some of the so-called land donors, Sam’s associates, would make a modern philanthropist blush.

But this kind of opportunism in today’s crowded world creates problems. Which is why one of the big moves in climate change is now behavioral science. Social scientists are now trying to determine how to stop the deforestation of the Amazon region. Why? Because we’ve added some 200+ billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere by stripping huge tracts of land for development—over and above fossil fuel emissions—according to Thomas Lovejoy (the scientist who coined the term “biological diversity” in 1980) in a recent issue of SEED magazine, a kind of hipster green science mag. The trick becomes, how do we stop ourselves from destroying our own habitat?

That’s a pretty good question. But on the flip side, our own habitat took a bit of a natural beating from yesterday’s rainstorm. After a half an hour of catching up on my reading in the office this afternoon I got a call asking if I’d check out a road washout on a nearby farm road. In retrospect I think the real intention was to have me give the guy who services the road a dressing down for not fixing it properly the first time. I guess I didn’t quite get that memo until it was too late, and I started hauling rocks to fill in the washout. And of course I threw my back out.

It strikes me that I’m not what I used to be either. But nothing ever is.

Even our entire galaxy is not what it used to be. I read in the same magazine that we may be experiencing a biodiversity downswing—maybe even a mass extinction. (And here you thought things couldn’t get any worse.) This thoughtful science dude, Adrian Melott, informs us that this may happen every 62 million years, which some scientists figure coincides with one revolution of the Milky Way galaxy. Whenever “we” climb the north side of the orbit, we’re apparently closer to the Virgo constellation and its magnetic pull, drawing us closer to it at an incredible 200 kilometers a second. And this apparently creates a “bow wave” as we push through the hot gas of “empty” space, stirring up cosmic radiation, which is bad for our planetary health, or something like that.

According to bio-geologists there have been 20 of these mass extinctions, such as the pre-Permian event that wiped out 95% of all life on the planet some 250 million years ago. This, however, was very good news for the dinosaurs, who repopulated the Earth after the big event, and went on proliferating wildly for another 185 million years or so, until they too were wiped out about 65 million years ago—which was good for us and our wild proliferation (6.8 billion and counting). So this is a normal occurrence. And now it’s our turn to enter that perilous galactic swing toward the north side of the loop.

I am not unduly pessimistic, because no one gets out of here alive—though a few among us may get out of Charlotte County alive to perish peacefully elsewhere.

The best we can do is wax philosophic. Yet even this is now the purview of science. At the back of said SEED magazine is a book review section, and in it there’s a review of a couple of books debating the role of God in shaping morality. But that’s okay, because on the next page there’s a spread on a new, half-billion dollar underground science park in California with 1.7 million plants living on its roof. Now that’s green. Or should I say, a lot of green. It even has the world’s largest indoor coral reef. Why bother going outside at all? Inside one will find the ultimate “functional expression of sustainability”. Now that’s the way to save the planet.

For lighter entertainment I’ve been turning to Small Farm magazine, where you can “get the most out of portable chicken coops”, learn how to trap coyotes with snare wire without endangering your pet dog or your children (always helpful), or discover how to airfreight your prize pig.

Yet gloom follows, even here. I turn to page 9 to discover that Japan is experiencing a farming crisis. Once an agricultural self-provider, Japan now imports more than 60% of its food, and the remaining 1.9% of its population that still farms is aging dramatically. It’s become so bad that the Japanese government is subsidizing programs to attract inexperienced young urbanites to working farms.

Well, I might tell those kids what they’re about to find out—that farm work is no picnic. I just got up to put on the kettle for a cup of tea and could barely walk. So much for the romance of lifting and shovelling.

But I do have the satisfaction of knowing that, by carving out a shallow ditch, I’d likely solved the washout problem. At least one bad thing ain’t what it used to be either.


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