Sunday, September 28, 2008

Henslow’s Sparrow

The Farm has always been known for being home to some pretty unusual characters. Stephen asked Ina May once, “Why do we have such weird friends?”

“That’s just who likes us,” she replied.

One of our weird friends of late is the Henslow's Sparrow, whose habitat has been in steady decline for most of a century now, but the pace of that destruction is picking up and without protection, could be one of the approximately 30% of all species now marked for extinction, sooner rather than later.

IMAGE: Breeding distribution of Henslow's Sparrow in the United States and southern Canada, based on Breeding Bird Survey data, 1985-1996. Scale represents average number of individuals detected per route per year. Map from J. T. Price, American Bird Conservancy, Boulder, CO.

Tennessee is not even supposed to be an area known as Henslow’s habitat, except that here on a The Farm, and in three other locations in Tennessee, it has sought sanctuary. It shows up in March to late April and leaves in late August to September.

Image by Tim Fennel.

Henslow's Sparrows use grasslands that have well-developed litter, relatively high cover of tall, dense grasses and generally low woody stem densities. It needs a few scattered forbs for song perches, but mostly goes for tall, native grass prairie to the exclusion of pasture, hayfield or golf course roughs. Field size is an important component of Henslow's habitat and large grassy areas (>50 acres) are needed to support persistent populations, which are inclined to hold territories in the interior of fields rather than at the boundary. All of this fits to a T the large, terraced, keylined fields at the interior of the Farm which we have husbanded in native prairie grass since the mid-1980s, when they were removed from agricultural production but preserved as field.

At our Quarterly Town Meeting today, Cynthia Rohrbach showed us the census of Henslow's Sparrows observed in Tennessee, according to the Natural Heritage Database. In 1997, a single breeding pair and 2 males were observed to our east at the Arnold Engineering Center near Tullahoma. In 1998 four sightings were made near Fort Campbell, north of us on the Kentucky border. It was not until 2006 that a nesting population was confirmed, with 5 sightings in the Bark Camp Barrens Wildlife Management Area and 3 territorial males discovered by Conservation Biologist Bill Pulliam at The Farm. In 2007, The Farm had 13 territorial males, 3 fledglings, 1 juvenile, and 3 others seen or heard. There were no other sitings anywhere in Tennessee.

Image by J.K. Cassidy.

Cynthia said the handouts she passed around were to let people know why she is passionate about the Henslow's Sparrows and why we need to be concerned about protecting their habitat. The Farm Land Use Committee took heed last week and delayed the maintenance of those fields until after the birds have out-migrated to their winter range next month. Later this fall we will perform a managed burn over the greater portion of the grassland to renew native seed, re-fertilize the soil, and deny territory to invasive plants, but we will keep a substantial portion as recognizable habitat for the sparrows when they return in March and April. The sumac and small trees encroaching on the edges of the field will be hand-pulled. Proposals by residents unaware of the sparrows to put in large, fenced gardens in this area have been studied and then diverted to less sensitive but equally fertile areas nearby.

In too many parts of the world, concern for one small, seemingly insignificant bird might not rise to the level of halting development or altering human land use patterns, or the patterns of domestic pets, at least not without a highly visible battle between the birdwatchers and the Powers That Be, or dog owners. Here at the Farm, as demonstrated by the sentiment of the meeting, concern for other species is commonplace and uncontroversial.

The little bird gets to be.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cider Time

This is just a quick back-from-the road check-in for our regular readers. I was in England the past two weeks, at the International Biochar Initiative meeting in Newcastle, and then down to Totnes for a stay with the Hopkins family and a closer look at the Transition Towns movement, now more than 100 villages strong. I’ll post more on both those subjects in the coming days and weeks.

My talk in Totnes was recorded, as Rob reports in his Transition Culture blog:
Luckily for those of you who couldn’t make it, Carl Munson of the wonderful was there, and made podcasts of the Albert’s talks. You can here is main talk, ‘Anything is Possible’ here, and a short interview Carl did with Albert at the end of the evening here. You can also read Carl’s review of the talk here. You can recreate the Albert Bates experience in the comfort of your own living room by also downloading his powerpoint here and flipping through it as you listen to the podcast. Now, how 21st century is THAT?! Transition Culture, the cutting edge….

My last prediction (Tea Leaves) about gas prices and Hurricane Ike proved prescient, and I came back to find my home Strategic Petroleum Reserve a dime cheaper per gallon than the prices at the stations. Whether my Bush-Baker hypothesis has anything to do with the price pattern could be decided when (a) the panic subsides as Houston recovers and prices go back down to around $3.50 again, and (b) when they spike up again steeply, along with crude prices, immediately following the election, with crude closing out the year 7 to 15 percent above levels seen in December 2007.

Here in Tennessee it is cider-pressing time, and the apprentices at the Ecovillage Training Center are in full swing, or twist. This weekend we start an advanced permaculture course in Forest gardening and Orchard Remediation, with Rick Valley, Land Steward at Lost Valley Educational Center in Oregon, who has been teaching permaculture since 1975, and as people gather for that workshop, we are taking advantage of the extra hands to get some added leverage on the press.

The cider tastes a trifle tart to me this morning but it should sweeten up nicely as those magic enzymes begin to work their magic.

Back with us also is Doug Beitler, our cheese wizzard, with a backpack full of new cultures gathered in Southeast Asia. He is busy experimenting with hundreds of possible variations on soy cheese, tweaking the flavor tones to get out the green or chemical tastes and get in the tang and snap. He produced a hard jalapeño jack last night that grates well and melts over burgers. Doug has produced a variety of soy cheddars that range in hardness and sharpness, and also some lovely crumbly blues and fetas that go well over salads.

A plate of these vegan cheeses will go great with some apple slices and a tall glass of fresh cider at lunch today.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Tea Leaves

At the last US presidential election in 2004 I researched the subject of gasoline prices and discovered that every election year a Bush was in the White House the price of gasoline peaked in early July and then declined sharply to Election Day, rebounding gradually after that. Every year a Bush was outside but wanting to get into the White House, the opposite happened. There is one exception to this, which came in 2004, when Bush-II was trying to defeat John Kerry and prices should have come down but did not.

Until now I have attributed the pattern to the relationship between the House of Bush and the House of Saud. It is a little more nuanced than that, because who really sets prices is the refineries, and although it helps to have more crude in the pipeline when you are taking prices down, that has not always been the case in election years. If you are into conspiracy theories, you might say Pappy Bush and his close advisor, James A. Baker III, strongly influence the management of the refineries and hence are in a position to set prices, regardless of supply and demand. See, for instance, the client list of Baker's Houston law firm. Of course, you would never be able to prove that.

The lone exception year that broke the pattern can be explained by peak oil. By 2004 the world was lurching into a shortfall in crude inventories, demand was soaring in China, Venezuela was rumbling, and the Saudis were miffed over the worsening Palestinian situation (similar to the position OPEC found itself in, after the US peaked and they could turn the screws on Richard Nixon in 1973 in response to the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War, precipitating a global crisis at the gas pumps, which abated only when Henry Kissinger got the Israelis to promise to give up the Golan Heights).

However, if the explanation is credible, that same exception should apply this year. One glance at refinery crude inventories (This Week In Petroleum from the EIA) — down 25.8 percent from this time last year — and you can see the tension between supply and demand has never been greater. At the peak of Hurricane Gustav preparations, shut-in Gulf of Mexico crude production totaled approximately 100 percent of the U.S. Gulf crude production (1.3 million barrels per day). Last week 14 Gulf refineries were shut down by the evacuations. As of the end of this week, shut-in Gulf of Mexico crude production still totals 1.25 million barrels per day and 13 of those 14 refineries remain closed. Hurricane Ike is a Category 4 on a westerly track into the Gulf, skirting the north coast of Cuba on this coming Monday.

Saudi production is little changed and Mexico is in steep decline (down some 30% year-over-year at their Cantarell field, as I reported here 2 weeks ago).

Based on all these tea leaves, back in July I went out and re-filled my 550-gallon storage tank with regular unleaded. Dumbest purchase I ever made. If I had waited just one week I would have seen the change in price direction and waited. I could just not imagine the election year pattern re-establishing. So far that lack of imagination has cost me $637.68.

So how is it that gasoline peaked in early July and is now declining sharply in the march towards Election Day, and crude on the world markets just closed the week at $104.58? The U.S. average retail price for regular gasoline fell for the eighth week in a row. The West Coast price fell for the tenth week in a row. I don't think either the Beijing Olympics or demand destruction in the US can explain that sudden, unpredicted fall.

On my transoceanic flight today they were screening Recount, the HBO movie about the 2000 election. The answer was right there in front of me: Bush Senior’s go-to-guy, Jim Baker.

I think the only reasonable explanation is that the House of Bush decided to anoint John McCain as Bush-III and now has put the nation's wholesale gas prices on a Labor Day special, against the financial interests of refinery owners (who, after all, are making record profits and can afford to light their cigars with million-dollar bills). But see Tom Whipple's caution about refinery stocks. If you push prices down, you push demand back up in the USA. If you are teetering on your front-end inventories to begin with, what you get from that is shortages. That won't be good for McCain if it comes in the next 65 days. But perhaps the refineries have their fourth quarter calendar already scoped out, and 65 days is _exactly_ their inventory limit.

That is, unless Ike, or another major hurricane, decides to pay a call at the Gulf oil patch. Eisenhower had a staff meteorologist. Maybe John McCain should too.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

My Houston Moment

A few years ago, when I was writing The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide, I was coming off a career in appropriate technology, UN-style development consulting, ecovillage design, permaculture teaching and grassroots organizing, and the book in many ways resembles a course book from the Ecovillage Training Center, Gaia University, or Gaia Education Associates. It is an A-to-Z of how to downsize and rebuild civilization if you wanted it to sustain for another century or more.

Well, time marches on, and since putting that book out, I had what I have come to call my “Houston Moment,” as in, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” but actually so-named because I happened to be in Houston, Texas when it fully sunk in, in October, 2007. It had been latent for a while, and nothing new happened to me in Houston to make the pieces fall together, but it was like watching a slot machine, the lever having been pulled, the tumblers spinning, and finally, chunk, chunk, chunk, three lemons came up.

The three lemons are human destiny, the evolutionary track of the earth, and non-linear climate change.

Energy plays a role, but really, it is more of a symptom now. Complexity (especially in the ecosystems of finance), memes and temes, the losing competition with other life-forms for this planet, the technological singularity, the voice of a plant or fungal world speaking though our bloodstream, unmanned biotech predator drones, foglets of transhuman intelligence wafting off to other solar systems, the Republican National Convention — all symptoms.

So it seemed to me another book is needed, and last month I began work on that. Tomorrow I am flying off to England for a research trip. I will be covering the International Biochar Conference in Newcastle as a correspondent for Organic Gardener (Australia) and then training down to Totnes for a walking tour of the Transition Towns movement with Rob Hopkins. Future trips will take me far up the Amazon river, to kelp farms in the Gulf of Mexico, and to little-known islands of biodiversity where hope is still alive.

The funny thing is, I find myself inhabiting this strange amphibian skin, crawling out on the beach with my tail in my own past and my nose in my future. Here at the Training Center we are just starting another month-long apprenticeship program with a brilliant and beautiful international group of activists, and we have upcoming workshops in advanced permaculture (water catchment and retention systems, forest gardening, Facilitating Deep Ecology and The Work That Reconnects, forest mushroom cultivation, and solar PV systems) going on the whole time I’m gone. Under my denomination as a loyal ecovillage movement person I will be spreading the gospel of the Oct-Nov EDE training of trainers at Findhorn and Gaia U’s action learning modules in ESR, Conflict and IESD, also at Findhorn, in December. I will be ramping up to teach permaculture in Belize again this winter with a great group of international instructors.

But the whole paradigm of rapid, action-learning education — to transform our swing to something that might hit the fast ball Mother Nature is hurling at the plate — seems to me, post-Houston, too little too late.

Apart from the facilitation and conflict in Module One of the EDE, much of the ecovillage design curricula now seems hopelessly tame. All the financial permaculture stuff (“Green Economics”) is likely to be worthless soon, except perhaps some skills in building alternative currency, barter or local exchange systems from scratch in the midst of famine and panic. The world money system is teetering on absurdity, and can't last much longer unless it dumps the US dollar out of the lifeboat and watches it sink into the icy depths like Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Titanic. And even then, there is no guarantee it won’t reach an icy arm up and tip the whole boat into the ocean.

The Integrative Eco-Social Design meme propagated by Gaia University may yet have some usefulness. According to a recent promotional brochure, “This 2-year-long program is for people working at an advanced strategic level in the regeneration and world change fields, using approaches informed by the permaculture and ecovillage design disciplines (e.g Dip.Perm.Des or EDE certificate).” Presumedly the advanced strategic level employs Geoff Lawton/Darryl Doherty and David Blume paradigms to shift us toward the human tipping point. We need armies of permaculturists transforming deserts on land and sea to be massively sequestering carbon and switching the direction of atmospheric chemistry or we are all toast.

That is really the only thing worth teaching now: how to muster, equip and field those armies.

Does Gaia U also give out condoms? I am noticing some more sites popping up with some basic survival skills in database format; subjects like home medical, caring for kids, water, latrines, greywater, home heating, food storage, cooking, lighting, and recycling grocery plastic bags into sheets and clothing. Unfortunately, unlike our decade-old free database at the Institute for Appropriate Technology, these new sites tend to be copyrighted, which is same-old same-old paradigm. That selfish gene is slowly killing us.

I applaud some recent inventions such as the Permaculture First Responder course created by the Solar Living Institute in California, or the Transition Gathering Camp in Suffolk, UK. I am going to the biochar conference hoping to find some solutions that will lift the ennui many of us are feeling about the future. If nothing more, getting out and doing something helps the grieving process.

Houston, firing on your signal, three… two… one.




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