May Peace and Love Fill
Your Holidays with Joy
For those of you who are interested, this is a link to my annual holiday letter.
For those of you who are interested, this is a link to my annual holiday letter.
November is a special time for me. This year it meant closing the garden up the day before Thanksgiving (thanks, climate change!) and also deer season. I’ve hunted deer all my life and it never gets easier to pull the trigger but as a carnivore, I want to stay connected to my food. I also spend time with men I have hunted with, some since I was a boy. I’ve not posted the photos of the dead deer to avoid offense but I’ve posted photos of opening morning. (I have put some photos of deer and hunters along with a longer written piece here about the men I hunt with and my feelings as I’m hunting.) I hunted my family farm long enough to see brush turn into forest and to see the results of the soil conservation measures my father took when he started farming in 1948. While aging isn’t for the faint of heart and I have my share of aches and pains, I also have the honor of seeing the arc of change and it fills me with awe and humility. I lead a charmed life and this is the time of year that I feel it the most. I hope you have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.
April 12, 2007 – October 7, 2021
I’m beginning this memoriam in Angus’ last hours. He’s lying at my feet and seems to be at peace. Six months ago, he had a series of small strokes and his kidneys started to fail and so his passing has long been on my mind. As he lost weight and mobility, I was keenly aware of the contract we make with the animals we bring into our lives: that we will know when their suffering is too much and act accordingly. With Angus, it was a simple test, wagging tail and smiling eyes. And he has passed that test every day until today.
He was endowed with such joy and peace! Even as his kidneys failed and he was getting up many times a night to pee, he always took the opportunity to patrol the place at least once. I might miss one of the guests coming into the cabin but Angus, despite being almost totally deaf, would greet them. Even yesterday when we were at Veigh’s for lunch, he had to sniff around the yard and sniff his pal Izzy’s butt before I lifted him back into the car.
They say the best we can hope for is a good life with compressed morbidity. He certainly has had a good life and brought joy to all he encountered. The pains of old age didn’t stop him from feeling joy. He would hobble around the place, eyes smiling and tail wagging. Until today. I hoped he would go gently into that good night on his own. He was better in the morning—a brief wag of the tail—but it was clear he wasn’t the same. “Never too soon and only a minute too late,” is what an old friend told me. I think I can say I found that balance. Huge thanks to Dr. Eric Putman who took time out from his surgery day to console us both before sedating Angus and giving us some last time together.
My life is divided into my four dogs. All have lived to be 14 and all have been fine teachers. Angus came into my life 14 years ago as a gift from my dear friends, Sandy and Louis Maine. Angus’ full name is “Angus, Retriever of Love” and was born of “Daisy Loves a Lot.” He has lived up to his name and lineage. Despite not being neutered, he was an incredibly gentle dog and was never in a serious fight. He seemed to be able to approach people and know quickly whether his advances were welcome.
He loved to play and would get down as low as he could go to encourage smaller dogs to not be intimidated so they would be comfortable playing with him.
He always reminded me, by example, that the true joy in life is giving…although that did not extend to sharing his dinner.
He arrived in my life just as I was moving into the new house. Having had dogs that have been wanderers, I installed an invisible fence around 10 acres of the place and a dog door. It was, if I don’t say so myself, a perfect place for dogs! And Angus had many friends to came to visit for the day, the night or the week. His sister, Mieta, and later his niece, Penny, were often here (and he at their place, too); Juneau, his best friend; Ely and Gogol; Toby, Sophie, Thomas, a cat who thought he was a dog, and Frank, a cat who was very much a cat; Chip, Isla, and Snow; Sidka; Obie; and lots of others who came with their people or just on their own. It was very much a doggy day camp.
A new chapter in my life will begin. I won’t have to worry about whether he’ll be too hot or too cold in the car. I will be able to travel and spend a night away from home, something I haven’t done this year. I will take advantage of the freedom but it will always be bittersweet.
A light has gone out of the world but his presence and the lessons he brought will remain. I will smile while I cry for his loss, but I will cry rivers. Here’s to you, fine friend, may the light you brought to world remain in memory and inspire good in all creatures.
I am catching up on some Daily Show episodes I missed when I was away for a week and I was particularly taken by one of their pieces on the recent Brexit vote. It was interviews with a dozen or so people who had “voter remorse” and explained that they had not expected the “Leave” side to win so felt safe to vote Leave as a protest vote.
I was in Ireland during the vote and saw some of the coverage there with my Irish friends. For a moment I felt like that gave me some “special” knowledge about it because I was “there.” As I saw the coverage here I realized it was much the same. It’s certainly true that the impact on Ireland is orders of magnitude greater than here in the US, but that didn’t mean the coverage was different. It got me thinking once again about the information I use to form opinions.
The Daily Show coverage resonated with me because it fit in with my view of the world. I viewed the “Leave” case as being based on partial truths and lies and appealing to people’s discouragement with government. Much of the coverage I saw, or at least saw and remembered, supported this point of view.
The question I started asking myself was, “What do I really know about the EU and Britain’s relationship with it?” The answer to that is fairly straight forward: I know what I hear on the media streams I choose to glean for information. For me, National Public Radio is my most trusted source of information. I find its coverage “unbiased” but that is only because its biases are in harmony with my biases. Fox News seems biased because the conclusions they arrive at are different than my own and I suspect they report things that aren’t true. To a lesser extent MSNBC and Democracy Now don’t resonate either, but I don’t mistrust their “facts.”
Having said that, I wonder how I came to that conclusion? Did I “fact check” Fox? Probably not, instead I probably heard it fact checked on some other media stream. Do I fact check NPR? No. How does one “fact check” anyway? I’ve never been to Afghanistan or Iraq or Nigeria or even Flint, MI. I can only check “facts” that are reported by someone else. Ultimately we have to use the preponderance of evidence rather than facts, but more often than not, what we believe is based on who we believe.
Fiction (aka lies) aside, there are a vast number of facts and experiences that have relevance to a story and reporters and news curators must make decisions on which ones they report and send on to the audience. Judgments must be made and these result in an inevitable bias. As one journalist once said, “We can never be unbiased; the best we can do is to be ‘fair.’”
More than ever, media covers the “impact” of an event as much as the facts. Mass shootings are covered with interviews with the victims’ families, funerals, the outrage. More than facts this visceral reaction stimulates our emotional reaction. These visceral reactions can lead to good legislation, but Hitler rose to power not on facts but on emotional appeal.
So where does this leave me? First, it leaves me less confident that I know much of anything. To those who know me, this may come as a surprise as I do tend to state my opinions with confidence. I’m a master of self-deception. A mentor once said to me, “You said that with a lot of authority. Are you sure that’s true?” It was a pivotal moment for me. I realized that the less sure I was of something, the more authority I would add to my tone of voice. To this day, I use it as personal BS meter: I’ll say something, hear that tone of authority, and say, “Wait a minute, I take that back. I think I’m extrapolating beyond the data.”
Clearly this revelation has not stopped me from developing opinions. What it has done is help me remember that they are just opinions, not some ultimate truth. I still have trouble reinterpreting facts to allow my opinions to evolve and change, but I’m getting better at it.
Ultimately it’s how this plays out in how I live my life, that’s important. As someone who was once a strident activist, how do I approach controversial issues? Over the last 5 or 6 years I have been teaching (read learning) alternative and renewable energy at SUNY Canton. One of the biggest issues facing the North Country is wind power. At a cursory glance, it’s hard to see what’s not to like; the wind is there, why not use it? It’s not like we are going to slow down the spinning of the earth by adding air resistance (or at least we don’t think so).
However, there are significant issues, both for the community it’s sited in and the environment at large. And then there’s the wind business itself. What determines a person’s opinion about wind is as much how they weight the downsides against the upsides as it is the facts (and fictions) that they believe. One technical method for this weighting is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It tries to take into account the long term costs of development and weigh them against the benefits. I like this method not because it arrives at some unassailable answer, but because it attempts to look at the big picture and it serves as a model that can take into account new information.
Where does it break down? There are two places: the accuracy and even availability of the data, and how “intangible costs” (like environmental, health and social impacts) are weighted. As wind farms have developed, there is more and more data on things like bird kill, but there is little quantitative data on health and social effects. Recent work on the impact of wind farms on property values, much of it done here in the North Country by Martin Heintzelman and his colleagues at Clarkson University, is starting to paint a picture, but it’s not a static picture.
Health effects, on the other hand, are primarily anecdotal. Another North Country resident, Dr. Nina Pierpont, has written a book on Wind Turbine Syndrome, but the dominant opinion is that health effects are rare. It is unfortunate that no one has seen fit to do a broader epidemiological study of potential health effects because as we know from tobacco, dominant opinions can be catastrophic.
In addition, there are social and economic factors that come into play. What is the value of the viewscape of hundreds of turbines? I can’t imagine getting approval for overhead powerlines today if none existed, but now we take them for granted. Leases are given for a relatively small plot around the base of a tower, but the impact goes far beyond the base and there is no requirement that impacted neighbors be compensated, partially because we haven’t quantified the impacts on them.
Wind power is an emerging industry and, like all other renewables (with the exception of large hydropower), is not competitive with traditional fossil fuels without government subsidies. Without these subsidies, new renewable energy sources wouldn’t develop until the depletion of fossil fuels raised their cost to a point where renewables could compete. Government incentives are designed to fast track the industry and get it competitive long before market forces could, maybe even before the world experiences serious impacts from climate change.
Finally there is the business of wind. Most of the wind power developed in the North Country is being done by Iberdrola, a Spanish company that dominates the wind industry worldwide. As with many controversial developments, these companies are less than transparent and tend to seek a foothold before going public with their plans. They have been accused of clandestine tactics such as offering leases to government leaders even if the potential for wind on that land is minimal. They operate in secrecy, insisting that lease holders sign non-disclosure agreements about what they are paid. All of these things raise red flags.
I’m sure that there are many other factors, some of which may turn out to be much more critical than the preceding inventory, at play. So I’m left with two options: evaluate the scanty evidence, weighted to my biases, and come up with an opinion, or withhold judgment. Opinions, flawed and otherwise, are what shape our future. Not having an opinion is like the “no-action” alternative, it plays a role in shaping the future, too.
At this point, I support wind power in general but there are places where it’s not appropriate. I believe there should be changes in the process of development to address local concerns and openness would go a long way to allow the development of wind in a harmonious and appropriate manner. And I remain open to new facts and new points of view.
Wind power was a good issue for me to use to demonstrate the shift in my process. The progressive faction with which I identify is somewhat split on the issue, so like a good statesman, I am held upright by forces from both sides. On other issues, I have not yet become so pliable. On taxation and the redistribution of wealth, for example, I’m pretty dogmatic, supporting Bernie and Elizabeth Warren without a lot of fact collection and analysis.
I want to leave you with what started this inquiry back in 1974. I was listening to the ZBS radio serial, The Fourth Tower of Inverness, and one of the last parts was a reading of Hsin Hsin Ming. This quote stuck like a grain of sand in my shoe.
“If you wish to see the truth, then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.”
– Hsin Hsin Ming – Verses on the Faith Mind by The 3rd Zen Patriarch, Sengstau