Saturday, February 28, 2009

My Chair

My dear old chair with ecru shawl
Companion to my lonesome
Thoughts these many years,
So staid and ready to receive
An ancient sage
A modern myth
A holy word of yonder age
Without complaint,
I hope to bring
Your worn and weary cloth
A simple happy offering
Before I sleep

Friday, February 20, 2009

Henry Madden Library Reopens

I have been looking forward to today for over a year. Our recently renovated CSU Fresno library opened its doors this morning for the first time. It’s a nice building, with tall windows and massive concrete pillars. It’s a modern building but it isn’t overdone. It’s certainly a library to catch your eye.

When I moved to Fresno last year, I promptly drove to campus to check out the library. I was quite disappointed when I discovered that it was closed for renovation. The good news was that the construction was impressive and a great deal of money had been invested to build it (including gambling money which I find to be a bit unusual). The bad news was that it wouldn’t be finished until the end of the year (several months away).

Well, as expected, the end of the year came and went and the library still wasn’t open. January was an overly optimistic target and so was Valentine’s Day. But I soon learned that a firm date had been set when I checked out the library website and noticed a clock marking the days, hours, minutes and seconds to Opening.

On campus today, the most common remark I heard was that the library was “huge”. Having experienced larger campuses and larger libraries, I was a bit amused by this apparent provincialism but I did have to admit that the building was spacious. There is a lot of open unused area inside, but I think this is a good thing – there’s plenty of room to grow.

I am a bit tentative about priorities however. There seems to be a lot of space dedicated to administration compared to the space allotted to books and journals. If the unused space gets used for what libraries are supposed to provide – books that is – then it will be well spent and the campus administrators will deserve our praise. If the same relative allocations continue, however, I’m not sure the gamble will have paid off.

Part of the reason for the small space allocation for books is that there is a very impressive series of shelf-compactors. Almost all of the books are on the lower level in what is claimed to be the largest self-compacting system in the United States. It is quite impressive. It seems that the science of compactors has been around long enough that many of their earlier problems have been overcome. It used to be that they took a long time to move and you often had to wait your turn to open the shelves if somebody was in a nearby isle. The compactors here are much shorter than I’ve seen in other libraries making room for more isles. No doubt this will still be frustrating during peak periods – such as midterms – when students have to wait around for isles to clear. But over-all, it seems to be a good use of space.

I have to admit, however, that I’m not a big fan of shelf compactors. I’m too old-fashioned I guess. I prefer walking up and down the isles looking at whatever volume catches my eye – the dustier, the better. Shelf-compactors make this difficult and much less rewarding. They are just fine for the individual with reference number in-hand who knows just where to find what is needed. They frustrate the library soul in search of serendipity.

Another frustration is the lack of hiding places. Libraries have charm to the extent that they have secret hiding places where you can cozy up to a book and pass the silent hours. Fresno’s new library is much too practical for this. If you need to sit down and read, you pretty much have to find a chair in the large open area full of tables, and read next to a dozen laptops and sundry groups of students. There are reading rooms nearby that can be closed for privacy. These will, no doubt, be useful when chairs are added. Today I preferred sitting on the floor alone in one of them to the chairs in the “lunchroom”.

I say “lunchroom” only half in jest. There is, after all, a convenient coffee shop on the second floor next to a large reading area. I know that many campuses these days have such vending services in their libraries. They seem to be copying Barnes & Noble Booksellers who has been successful at combining books and beverages. It’s sad that these are the busiest places in the library. Maybe they exist as a form of literary bribery. Maybe they just help boost patron numbers in order to justify such big buildings. I guess I shouldn’t complain.

I should also mention the frustrating arrangement of the current journals. They are placed alphabetically. I realize that young students, unfamiliar with how libraries are arranged will find their favorite magazines more easily this way. But it is a real headache for somebody wanting to review the recent literature on a given subject. You have to run back and forth to find the issues you need and then you’re not sure if you’ve seen everything there is. It seems to me that it would be much better to educate our students in call numbers and arrange things as they should be arranged.

This may sound a bit negative. I don’t mean for it to be. Our new library is definitely something to be proud of, and I look forward to many hours of enjoyment here. There are areas that I haven’t seen yet (particularly the South Wing) that I look forward to exploring. I also need to look more closely at the map collection – apparently it is one of the best in the state.

And I admit to being quite pleased, while walking across campus, to overhear a couple of different students tell their friends that they had to go “check out” the new library. I hope I hear the same thing for a long time to come.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Community Preparedness

Whatever happened to the idea of community preparedness? You would think that with all the natural disasters and economic troubles we have been experiencing lately that it would be a subject of much interest and discussion. How can it be that during such difficult times we ignore the whole subject?

It’s true that most communities have plans for disasters. In the earthquake zones of California, for instance, building codes reflect this danger and most homes lack basements. In the South, coastal areas build for possible hurricanes. Along our major rivers, people who decide to build on floodplains, usually take precautions to build levees.

Schoolchildren all across the country are drilled on what to do when they hear the public siren sounding a warning of danger. Scouts are taught the importance of safety and preparedness and so are almost all businesses. It might seem, then, that we are more prepared than I have claimed. And I haven’t even mentioned our community funded fire and rescue squads. We’re more focused on safety now than we’ve ever been.

Of course, all of these programs and precautions are worthy efforts. In fact they often save lives and property. But they are not to be confused with true community preparedness. Truly prepared communities certainly have these same programs, but they also have something more - they are self-reliant and even sustainable.

Unfortunately self-reliant communities are a rarity these days. This is a shame considering how common they were just a few generations ago. In less than a hundred years, we have forgotten many basic skills that were intuitive to our grandparents.

How does one go about planting and caring for a garden? I know this might sound ridiculously obvious to many. But it’s a serious question. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know even the basics of how to grow their own food. Who knows how to build a root cellar anymore? Or who knows how to irrigate and fertilize a crop? Who knows how to fertilize a crop if you can’t go to the store and buy fertilizer? Who knows anything about rotating crops or how to keep insects from destroying your plants?

Well the answer to most of these questions is that almost nobody does. And, in fact, almost nobody even cares. What makes this so troubling is that these basic skills are necessary for sustainable communities, despite how trivial they might seem in our current economy.

Perhaps we convince ourselves that we are self-reliant people. It’s just that our self-reliance is a nation-wide phenomenon. Why does it matter if we get our vegetables from the local farmer’s market or from another state (or continent, for that matter)? After all, the broader our trade connections become, the better off we all become.

Or so it might seem. Nonetheless, the error in this thinking is pretty obvious with just a little perspective. Things never remain as they are. We might like telling ourselves that it is our ingenuity that drives change and that we can control the future; but in reality, most significant changes come because of disruptive influences - even disasters. We adapt to the new circumstances because we have to, not always because we want to.

Our modern society exists in a precarious position. In many ways we’ve built ourselves a culture that exists as an upside down pyramid. Things that we need - such as food and shelter - are in the hands of a very few people. Most of us make a living out of providing goods or services that are not really necessary. I don’t mean that they aren’t worthy professions, they just aren’t required to sustain life. A sustainable community is comprised of a broad base that provides the basic requirements for survival. Further up the pyramid are those professions (such as education, government, and cultural luxuries) that are progressively less necessary. Our society is clearly top-heavy.

One example immediately comes to mind. The number of lawyers seems to me to be excessive. I haven’t counted but I expect that we have as many lawyers in the US as we have farmers. In a way this is a compliment to the abilities of Americans. A lot of us are smart enough to become lawyers. Who, in their right mind, would stay on a farm when they could use their abilities and make a lot more money in the city?

But this is a little misleading. First of all, one can be a farmer and a lawyer (or one of many other professions) at the same time. Secondly, it fails to consider the importance of wisdom. It takes more than cerebration to be wise. One must also have perspective. With our society turned upside down and vulnerable - vulnerable to being toppled from any of a myriad different directions - we need wise citizens. We need citizens with the wisdom to come together and create sustainable communities. Agrarian communities have always been sources of wisdom.

We have lived a long time under the mistaken belief that disasters won’t happen to us. Or maybe we’ve admitted that they might happen but that we’ll somehow come through OK in the end. That’s the beauty, after all, of a global economy. If disaster strikes in one place, someplace else can come to the rescue. There’s only one thing wrong with this sort of thinking. Not all disasters are local. Wisdom teaches something quite different. Sustainability is.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

California Newts

Sometime in the middle of February last year - while driving around Pine Flat Reservoir above Fresno, California I took a detour along Big Creek Road looking for a good place to find aquatic insects.

It had rained a good deal during the last couple of days and the stream was high. I found a number of small pools by the bank that had been left after the high water receded. I went looking for diving beetles. Instead, I found a number of California newts. They were out in force and paid me absolutely no attention at all.

In one pool there were four. I watched these for some time. They were a deep orange brown above with pale legs and eyelids. Underneath they were a bright orange. Their tails were flattened laterally for swimming and their eyes were white with a black band across the middle. They ranged in size from six to eight inches and practically skipped in slow motion along the bottom of the shallow pools.

The water was cool – almost cold. It was, after all, the end of winter and snow was still lining the banks not too far upstream. But this didn’t seem to bother the newts at all. I first thought they were out looking for food since the rain had stopped but I was soon proven wrong. They were out looking for mates and late winter after a rainstorm was an opportune time.

A bird will occasionally eat a California newt, but only once, before it dies from poisoning. Mallards, western grebes, great horned owls and the unwitting domestic fowl are all on record for having expired with a toxic newt in their gullets

The newts’ skin secretes the same non-protein toxin (known as tetrodotoxin) as the puffer fish of voodoo fame. For the hapless bird that measures its weight in ounces, the dose acquired from a single newt can be mortal in minutes. The garter snake, on the other hand, has developed immunity to the poison. It can eat a number of newts and only experience a bit of a buzz. Fortunately for the amphibians, forty degrees in February is not their favorite time to be out.

I had not been watching them more than a minute when one average-sized individual tentatively grabbed a larger one around the mid section and then paused to see how things would go. Apparently things didn’t go so well because both decided to part company rather abruptly. This was done by swinging their long tails back and forth to propel themselves in separate directions. It was obvious that when they wanted to move fast, they swam instead of walked.

In an adjacent pool (holding maybe five gallons of water) I discovered seven other newts. They didn’t seem to mind being in such close quarters except for one individual. He was curled up in a ball holding a female newt. A smaller newt was all tied up with them and it was hard to tell where one ended and another began.

As I watched more closely, I could tell that this was quite an event in the lives of these animals. Slowly the stronger male managed to move his long tail between his intended mate and the intruder and push him away. But this was only partially successful. His opponent had its front legs tightly wrapped around the tail of the female newt with its hands clasped together on the other side. It took a lot of shaking to get it off.

When the strong male was finally alone with his mate, he quickly pulled her up to the surface and gulped down a mouthful of air. Such a struggle, no doubt, used up a lot of energy; at least it did for him. The female got no air at all. Nor did she need any. She was exerting no energy at all.

For over an hour as I watched, it seemed the male was constantly busy keeping the others away. They would wander around the pool and then poke their nose against the pair. This usually was left uncontested by the mating male. But then the intruder would become more nosey and push itself with more assertiveness. Sometimes it would even walk right on top of the other two. At this point the male would slap the other with its tail and try to swim away, with his mate en tow, almost always rising to the surface for a gulp of air.

Once in a while a surge of water would splash over the rocky bank from the stream and agitate the pool. When this happened the salamander would just yield themselves to the current and slowly drift to the bottom of the pool. Occasionally an individual would float past in the main current of the stream, seeming to enjoy the ride. At other times when only a small current of water was entering the pool, the others would swim against the current just for pleasure – or so it seemed. They didn’t seem at all bothered by the cold or by the large primate observer that was only a few feet away. Even when the occasional wanderer would leave the water right in front of me, they didn’t seem to care that I was there.

It was surprising though that they didn’t seem at all interested in eating. Even the ones that weren’t mating paid no attention to the occasional mayfly naiad as it undulated through the water right in front of them. It seemed that this was supposed to be a time for other things and not for grub.

Solomon wrote, “There is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing" (Ecclesiastes 3:1,5). For these newts on a cool winter day in California it was a time for embracing.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


The box of knickknacks he
Could never throw away,
The piles unread of newsprint
By the way
The pear tree rendered
Leaves for him to see,
By order of the fall
Were they set free,
It happened on a day
He took to sweeping out
The cubby holes inside
At first he emptied all
The dust in bins, but then
Upon the garden to decide