Monday, August 20, 2012

The Farm Report

Cicero, of the late Roman Republic, who had a lot to say about many things, said "of all the occupations, none is better than agriculture."  Not for making fortune or achieving fame, but for its rewards both intrinsic and palpable.  Most who so esteem it these days make an economic living elsewhere and either retire to a gentleman's farmette or busy themselves with gardens. 
There are 17,000 new products on supermarket shelves every year.  A few may be long-existing items you did not have convenient access to before, but most are processed or fancied-up things overpriced at best and full of scary chemicals at worst.  We are dedicated to using everything that shows up in our "share" of organic local produce from the Spiral Path Farm CSA (community-supported agriculture) which is dropped off once a week about a mile away, and so are little tempted to look for any "new" products at the grocery store.  Recipes are wisely included with the weekly newsletter, since a lot of us would not know what to do with red Swiss chard the first time around.  For some reason, the cats love to chew at the sweet corn husks and I swear they know it's Thursday afternoon, because they're waiting by the garage-to-kitchen door so they can get at them right away.  Not crazy about husks myself, I can say that if they never send anything more wonderful than the little personal-size sweet watermelons, I'd still be perfectly happy.  Nancy can peer into the bag and in a minute come up with an original idea for dinner, recipe or no, so all her boys are thrilled with Thursdays.
With little land to work with, I still like to grow some things each year, usually tomatoes, green beans, onions, basil, and additionally this season, mint.  All grow in pots, the onions this year in a small planter where they did exceptionally well after a disappointing start.  The basil goes on burgers, salads and in anything remotely Italian, and the mint is destined for mojitos (natch!).  There are tomatoes and onions in the box garden at Zach's house, as well as a herd of beans in what looked like an ideal spot under a trellis.  I just don't know what's wrong with the soil there; we did get a second harvest of beans but the plants looked like they needed to go to Intensive Care.  The tomatoes are nice, but small, and the plants are likewise not half the size of the ones on the back deck.  Despite mixing the soil in the box with care from every good ingredient (and it feels and looks good), it's just barely more than worthless.  I put in some carrot seeds for a last-ditch effort at a fall crop (just enough days left), but don't have much hope.  They were on sale for 11 cents so no loss of investment looms.  I'll probably disassemble it in early winter.
Another planting on its final run are the chrysanthemums in three big pots on the deck which had been rescued from being thrown away by a hotel after Thanksgiving about 15 years ago.  They have a lovely mix of blooms, seemingly a result of cross-pollination over the years, but are long, ragged and don't respond well to watering anymore. 
I found a fiberglass cigarette urn thrown down the hill by a local motel last spring, brought it home (scrounging is the cousin of recycling!), painted it terra-cotta and filled it with soil, and put a packet of lettuce seeds in.  All year long, it's been the source of BB Bunny's dinner greens, and after the recent regular rains, is growing faster than it's used.
About a hundred years before Cicero opined on the subject, Cato the Elder wrote (in De Agri Cultura) that the best type of farm is the vineyard.  I had the privelege of snacking on wine grapes in Italy and the Santa Ynez and Napa Valleys, and can attest they produce delightful fruit as well as noble wines, and feed the eye and mind as well.  Food and drink are not just products or commodities, they are life.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The White Rajahs of Sarawak

Sir James Brooke, the White Rajah

 Of all the adventurers and scoundrels we've rescued from the obscure fogs of history here at  Just Sayin', it seems the ladies have been the most admirable and the men the most rascally.  One gentleman, however, achieved a great deal while being treated well by superiors and likewise doing the people in his domain more good than most rulers.  He even became the model for Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.
The many examples of that particular type of British imperial explorer (perhaps epitomized by Lawrence of Arabia) who tended to "go native" in Africa and Asia had stories to tell that make fiction seem pale and dull -- think of all the lost or unrecorded minor players whom we will never know of!  Not many became actual titled potentates in exotic lands, but James Brooke did, and established a dynasty that lasted over 100 years. 
Born near Varanasi, India to a judge in the colonial administration, Mr. Brooke ran away from the school he was sent to back in England, and returned to India as an ensign in the Bengal Army but was badly wounded in 1825.  A fortunate and rather substantial inheritance allowed him to purchase a schooner a few years later and he set sail for Borneo in 1838 (I guess fighting in the jungles of Assam had not been enough excitement).  Once there, he helped put down a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei, who offered him the governorship of Sarawak along the west coast of the island.  He restored the sultan to the throne after another bloody coup by the nobles, and was rewarded with full authority over his wild territory as Rajah (1841).  Next to being a pirate captain with his own tropical hangout, I'd say this is about as cool as foreign travel gets.
Placing his bets carefully, Brooke gave a lush offshore island to Great Britain and was rewarded again, this time with a knighthood.  Now Sir James, he set about organizing the government and laws of Sarawak, developed sources of trade and income, and pursued vigorous campaigns against the pirates of the South China and Sulu Seas -- as well as making progess in shutting down slavery and head-hunting.  Although he had had an illegitimate son, he was versatile sort and found time to fall in love with Badruddin, a local prince.  In 1862 he fought the infamous Moro Pirates, sinking four of their boats and causing 100 casualties.  No enemy could stop him, but several strokes took their toll and he died back home in Great Britain after naming his nephew Charles to succeed him.  Charles kept up the good work, impressing King George V, and ruled until 1917, when he in turn was succeeded by son Vyner.  Vyner (his picture is on the currency above) got the rubber and oil industries going, which drive the Sarawak economy to this day. Having to stay in Sydney, Australia during the Japanese occupation in WWII, he returned to reign one more year in 1946 when the territory became an official Crown Colony with an appointed governor.
Sir James is remembered in biographies and several works of fiction,and actor Eroll Flynn even wrote a screenplay for Warner Brothers about him (it was scheduled but never filmed).  There's another Hollywood connection:  Vyner's daughter Elizabeth appeared in three movies in the late 1930s under the name Princess Pearl. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Brain Damage

                  "The things that get us into trouble are the things we know that just ain't so."
                                                                     --attributed to Josh Billings

In 1890 and 1891, a certain Eugene Shieffelin released one hundred European starlings in Central Park.  He did not have bad motives, but neither did he have a clue what a mess he had just created.
The Law of Unintended Consequences is the harshest one in the world.  Its pervasiveness is one reason why predictions about the future usually miss the biggest things coming around the corner which we are not only unprepared to deal with, but can't even admit are happening when they do.  Lead looked to the Romans to be a real improvement over wooden water pipes.  Prohibition, to many serious people, seemed like the answer to the monstrous social problems of alcohol abuse.  Tetraethyl added to gasoline made car engines run much better.  We agreed we'd have "better living through chemistry." Who knew?
In a 2005 study, 287 toxins were detected in newborns.  Eating conventional food exposes us to 70 toxic chemicals a day.  We'd be completely, rather than mostly, in the dark if labeling were not required.  Most assume food available in clean, bright modern stores is safe, but what, really, are all those multisyllabic substances listed on the packaged item you're holding?  Even plain words such as "caramel color" (in cola drinks) are misleading euphemisms; there's no caramel, it's only brown dye.  Like in shoe polish.
Trying to figure out why some odd changes were occuring in frogs (good early indicators of something environmentally wrong, like the canary dying the the coal mine when deadly gases emerge) and unexpected estrogen levels in children, researchers found that more residues of medicines were present in the water supply than you'd think.  Eighty-seven percent of medicines are left in water after treatment for our home use, and many affect the nervous system.
A local man, Ed Brown (not a scientist, just concerned) has just released a film, "Unacceptable Levels", which he began when he considered an ordinary glass of water as a way that about 200 industrial chemicals found their way inside him.  That's only one avenue among many:  pesticides, clothing, furniture, plastic containers, cosmetics are others.  Because the current outdated law does not require companies to prove chemicals are safe before they are used in products, hard to predict dangers like flame retardants in children's pajamas causing developmental problems and even cancer are not caught.  I got away from using particleboard in building projects once I found out how much formaldehyde was released by sawing and handling it, and was exposed to far too much lead in old paint and asbestos in all sorts of things before their dangers were widely known.
Like the starlings now abounding everywhere in North America which seem a normal part of the environment, we humans accept what are really very messed-up situations as always having been that way.  Now in schools, public places, stores and restaurants, hyperactive children are ubiquitous, moving constantly, jerkily and pointlessly, while being loudly insistent about nothing.  No one takes notice of what would have been considered brain-damaged behavior a half-century ago.  The incidence of autism has risen from one child in 10,000 to one in 157, and that is just the confirmed diagnoses, not those in the whole range of neurological/developmental disorders.  Can you imagine trying to be an effective teacher today with several, or many, of these uncontrollable and unreachable kids in class consuming all your time and energy?  This is a huge nation-wide problem, and instead of looking for its real sources, ideologues attack unions and push religious schools. 
We now know what DDT and dioxin in Agent Orange did, but there are thousands of other neurotoxins in, well, everything, and they do seem to be wreaking havoc.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Rogues Return

Thomas Tew, a pirate's pirate
A rum named after Captain Tew.  What could be more appropriate?
Antongila Bay, Madagascar, today.  Looks pretty quiet.
The biographical films presented here at Just Sayin' Theater usually feature murderous pirates, spunky ladies, favorite authors or eco-heroes.  A rather odd mix.  Ah, if we could just get episodes of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" to open each show, and we had better any case, I think you will enjoy today's adventure, an old tale of rogues, riches and...righteousness?
Clear the decks, roll up the cannon and think ye on this:  how tip the scales of justice when very bad men do good things?
The story of LIBERTATIA, the pirate republic which existed for a generation in a bay situated in the northeast of Madagascar, found an eager audience when A General History of the Pyrates was published in 1724 and passed through several editions.  As to the author, a Captain Charles Johnson, nothing is known. 
In the late 17th century, Thomas Tew, a successful privateer from Rhode Island, met up with Captain Mission, a former French naval officer who turned pirate when he and the crew seized control of the warship Victoire.  They teamed up with an Italian Dominican priest and went ashore in Madagascar, a thriving haven for pirates around 1690 to 1720 (a reported 1,500 of them were based there).  Setting up a base for raids on rich shipping was not unusual on many islands and coasts during this period; there were many ex-sailors unemployed at the end of any number of wars between Great Britain, France and Spain.  What was unusual is the social organization of Libertatia, considering the time period.  It was multinational and multiracial, practicing democratic decision-making and communal sharing of wealth.  And with the formidable Victoire at their disposal, they accrued a great deal of it from conquered Portugese, Arab and Indian vessels.  Having subdued two slave ships, the band freed the captives who joined the colony as equals, true to their motto  "For God and Liberty." 
Exploiting the rich tropical land around their bay, the colony developed a more diversified economy of farming and cattle raising.  In a rare moment for humankind, they achieved prosperity and equality, for about twenty-five years.  One day while the ships were away on a raid, however, the native Malagasy people attacked and killed many of the colony, and the voyage went badly with losses due to storms and well-prepared adversaries.
When Tew and Mission escaped and sailed for the Atlantic, Fate took another swipe and Mission drowned in a storm before even reaching the Cape of Good Hope.  Captain Tew went back to respectability in New England, then tried piracy one more time, losing his life painfully to a cannonball from the Indian trader Fateh Muhammad.
The tale re-appeared in the 1952 film (remade with a title change in 1967) "Against All Flags," Errol Flynn's last swashbuckler.  Unique social advancements by seagoing criminals were not emphasized, of course; Flynn's character, while constantly being captured and escaping, falls for a pirate queen played by Maureen O'Hara, and was almost eaten by crabs while staked out on the beach!
It turns out the original author probably played with the facts and spun a lot of fiction around them, too.  The known dates do not match up and there is no substantiation that Libertatia existed as one place in time at all.  One critic proposed Daniel Defoe as the actual writer of A General History, since he was clearly fascinated by pirates and did a similar turn with Robinson Crusoe.  (Castaway Alexander Selkirk is the usually supposed model for Crusoe, but there was a former island-stranded surgeon who lived quite near Defoe also.)  But why the pseudonym?  My guess is that writing positively about anarchism, liberty, equality and getting away with crime might have landed the author in jail at the time. Purported "histories" from ancient, Renaissance or early modern European explorers are full of wild fictions wrapped around facts (except for Arab traveller al-Masudi who seems to have been unusually truthful); we can expect, really, no more from A General History of the Pyrates than one ripping good yarn that has a thoughtful point.  Robinson Crusoe, however, was clearly an early novel and a significant event in literature whose appearance spelled the beginning of the end of the fantastic histories. 
Until the movies came along.