Chill, baby, chill: Arctic oil exploration and climate security


image courtesy of

My wife’s engagement ring contains a marquis cut diamond appraised at $2000. I bought it at a pawn shop for $600. The pawn broker was ready to shoot me dead if I tried to steal it. When I paid him the $600 he was asking, he got teary eyed, ransacked his back room for a jewelry box, admitted he would have taken $550 because he could tell I am a good man, and promised that she would have no choice but to marry me in the face of that sparkling gem. It is a thing of beauty, no doubt.

Diamonds are plentiful and relatively indestructible. The second hand market is glutted with diamonds that no one wants because, without the sentimental value, they are comparatively cheap. Oil is not like that. Once it is consumed it exists only as a cloud of excrement. Our collective cloud of excrement has become a life-threatening problem as a result of economic forces set in motion by the General Motors streetcar conspiracy, in which five companies were convicted of conspiring to destroy electric-powered mass transit in favor of oil-powered transportation. Continue reading

HobbyWeek: a little world rarely seen …

We are often told to “think big.” (It’s a formula for success, apparently.)

I choose to think small. As small as possible. That’s my hobby: Bringing to larger life the world of the small. I’ve been doing that for a very long time. In the past year, I have rededicated myself to finding the beautiful and the bizarre in a tiny universe.

My hobby is macro photography. Using a lens designed for the purpose — magnifying the small — I photograph not merely flowers but the interiors of flowers, their styles, stigmas, anthers, filaments, and stamens. (Yes, I suppose the petals of the flowers manage to get into the image, too.)

I photograph water in liquid and solid states. I particularly like to shoot in winter. I’ve captured frost in numerous incarnations. I’ve found round water — dew or rain drops held in spherical shape by surface tension. Often, the background of the photograph is lensed through the drops of water. Or the sun is a starry pinprick in a reflection on the drop’s surface.

Frost is a demanding shoot. Hoar frost forms during very cold, absolutely windless nights next to the stream downhill from my house. I have to time it well: Late enough for the just-risen sun to backlight the frost; early enough so the sun’s rays do not wither and disintegrate the crystals.

It’s always fun shooting fire. And odd things, too: One image accompanying this post is something you eat for breakfast.

Often, after I download the images from my Canon into Photoshop, I’m surprised at what I find. I wear trifocals; my eyes have a collection of floaters. Combine those with staring through a tiny viewfinder to focus and, well, you don’t see every little thing the lens does.

I discovered the world of insects. Now, mind you, I do not like insects. Ick. Bugs. Spiders. Bees, hornets, and wasp, those stinging little bastards. But I bought a guide to insects to try to identify them. (I’m failing miserably; I’m not very good at it.) I still don’t like bugs, but I’m less … frightened … by them. (I have a spider who lives in my office. I now tolerate it.)

And trees! Who knew trees — bark, leaves, stems, seeds, insect inhabitants — could be so wonderfully interesting and beautiful? Last fall, I photographed leaves (often, just fragments of leaves) as they withered and fell. This spring, I choose one leaf bud on a red maple in my yard to photograph from birth to death.

As a macro photographer, I don’t have to travel to dramatic scenic vistas to find landscapes to shoot. Most of images I’ve shot in the past year were in my back yard, at a fishing hole next to a stream in the valley downhill from my house, and on trails in a patch of woods behind a residence hall at my university. I often spend an hour or two inside no more than a hundred square feet of forest or field. Such seemingly limited space is alive with life waiting to be captured.

Such photographic efforts have lent me needed creative and artistic satisfaction. I have longed to create beauty but failed in other media. But the skills and equipment I have now have allowed me to capture beauty in places most people rarely look — in a small world well beyond their daily consciousness.

I discovered grass (no, no, not that kind) this spring. I’ve photographed blades of grass — and found a world of really small insects and seeds through which grass propagates. Grass, it turns out, isn’t actually green (well, I cheated a few times, and over-saturated the color; sue me).

I am a university professor. I teach (or try to) undergraduates how to write and otherwise mature into good, kind, decent, gentle human beings. The kiddies often frustrate me, and I occasionally chafe at their less-than-their best attitudes toward their studies. They require my patience be Job-like. (Well, my patience is usually tested to the point of failure.)

But macro photography reminds me of the need for patience and rewards me when I achieve it. In nature, nothing stands still. Wind moves leaves, flowers, and grass. Clouds obscure sunlight needed for better exposure. Rain defeats all efforts to keep equipment dry. The sun needs an hour to move so a shadow is removed or introduced.

Patience and solace are the rewards of macro photography as much as the satisfaction of the finished images. So, too, is the change of focus from large-scale usual to the small-scale unusual.

It is a wonderful hobby, learning how to see anew even as my vision ages and becomes less acute. Even now, I see more and better than I have in decades.

Try it. You might see better, too.

(Below is more of my work. View my archive at 5280 Lens Mafia.)

Climate and agriculture: Wheatless in Hampstead

According to an article in yesterday’s Independent, the weather in Britain, especially England, has been so lousy that the UK is set to go from a wheat exporter to a wheat importer for the first time in a decade. The culprit here, if there is only one, appears to be the long spell of cold temperatures we’ve had this winter, on top of what can only be called a terrible year of weather. First we had a severe drought in the spring, and then the rains came thundering down, so then we had a lot of flooding, pretty much all over the country. Then this ridiculously cold and long winter. So grain harvests have been ruined. Actually, not just grain harvests—the folks at Riverford Farms out in Devon, who supply us with our vegetables, have had a pretty bad winter for vegetables, on top of a pretty bad year last year. Of course, this is nothing compared with the wheat problem that Egypt faces. But still, it’s indicative of a pretty unfavorable trend.

And it’s put even more pressure on farmers, who have recently also seen near-record livestock losses due to unusually cold and stormy winter weather, and the continual squeeze from the supermarkets that respective Labour and coalition governments appear unwilling to address. To make matters worse, spring plantings are going to be late, and small. We’ve just had the coldest March in 50 years, after the coldest February ever recorded. As The Independent states:

The poor harvest represents the lowest wheat crop since 1985 and means the country will be a net importer of the grain this crop year for the first time since 2001. The NFU predicts next crop year – July 2013 to June 2014 – will be another year of net wheat imports, the first time this has happened in consecutive years since the start of the 1980s.

But while farmers will lose hundreds of millions of pounds and the fragile economy will suffer, British consumers are only like to see a small increase, if any, in the price of a loaf.

“Wheat only represents about a tenth of the cost of a loaf and energy costs and packaging probably have as large an impact on price,” says NFU chief economist Phil Bicknell. “But the wheat price is determined by global supply, rather than UK supply, and the price has actually dipped in the last few days.”

For sure, it’s been a very bad couple of years for British farming. As The Independent, which has been doing good reporting work in this area for some time, reminds us:

Britain’s farmers are facing the third poor harvest on the run as the coldest March in 50 years plays havoc with crop planting–already significantly down because of last year’s wet weather.

With the cold snap set to continue through April, farmers say crops such as potatoes, peas, tomatoes and ornamental flowers have either not been planted, are not growing or are being stunted by the lack of light.

This follows low winter planting levels of cereal crops–a fifth down on last year because of the wet weather. A shortage of spring seed is adding to the problems.

Lower UK crop yields will make UK consumers more reliant on imports and the vagaries of the international markets, which could push up prices. Livestock farmers have been struggling to cope for some time with feed shortages due to poor grass growth in the summer, and continuing snow hampering deliveries.

But wait—how can prices be going down? Aren’t global wheat stocks declining? Well, yes, but it depends on how you look at the world. Stocks are declining on a per capita basis, especially in the developing world where grains count for a lot. But global wheat production actually wasn’t too bad in 2012, in spite of severe drought conditions in a number of wheat-producing areas, because of the increase in planted acreage in other regions. In the US, for example, Minnesota and North Dakota had record wheat harvests. And wheat prices, like those of many commodities, are global—hence the recent weakening. The UN FAO report last month actually forecasts an uptick in wheat production in 2013, in part because of an increase in planting in Europe. However, this forecast was made a month ago, before Britain and Northern Europe had a month of such bad weather. It snowed in both London and Berlin last week. The next FAO forecast comes out on 11 April—it’s entirely possible there will be some negative revisions to 2013 estimates.

Moreover, consumption trends continue to outpace production trends for grain in general, although global consumption did fall in 2012. So what happens if the significant droughts that have been afflicting the United States, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Australia continue—as it appears they will? Fortunately, there has been no real drought in China, which had a record grain harvest in 2012 (but was still among the top ten grain importers globally). Meanwhile, the trend towards great consumption looks set to continue—simple demographics, after all. This means that global grain stocks will continue to be stressed. Grain stocks worldwide currently stand at 423 million tons—which covers 68 days of consumption. This isn’t a record low level—but it’s close, being just six days longer than the record low that preceded the 2007-2008 grain crisis.

So much turns on the current global droughts, and whether they look likely to persist. In the US, things look a bit better than they did last summer, but not at all great—half the country is still affected by significant aridity. Here’s the most recent US drought monitor, and it sure doesn’t look a whole lot better than it did a year ago in that Midwestern region that supplies so much grain. Texas is a basket case, of course, but jeez, look at Nebraska. Globally, while the Ukraine looks better, Russia and Kazakhstan sure do not. And Australia? Don’t ask. Rainfall deficiencies (as they’re called) have been declining, which is the positive news, one supposes. But really, it’s no change of any substance after the hottest summer on record. Wheat production declined 27% from 2011/2012, and there’s no reason to expect any near-term improvement, even though the USDA, strangely enough, is calling for just that.

We continue to balance precariously. We saw what happened in 2008 when that balance was distorted. It’s only a matter of time before the balance gets distorted again, and there’s not much that Monsanto is going to be able to do about it. Meanwhile, I’m just going to hope that things dry out here a bit so that a reasonably normal spring planting season can still take place. But I’m not getting my hopes up.

ArtSunday: visit 5280 Lens Mafia, meet some great photographers

Not long ago I mentioned the launch of S&R’s sister site, 5280 Lens Mafia. 5280LM features a number of current and former S&R folks (writers, guest contributors, commenters, loyal readers) and the truth is that the project is off to a start I could barely have imagined. So if you missed it, I’d like to invite you to investigate some of the best so far.

S&R stalwart Dr. Denny is the master of the macro lens.

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The congress of cats in the crepuscular hour

On my walk this evening, far out in the country, I came across a sight I was probably not meant to see: a congress of cats gathered in the road. Three of them sat upright, far enough away that I first mistook them for turkeys. A fourth stood poised in midstride, the same color and nearly the same size as a fox. A fifth remained still as a Sphinx, nearly invisible in a stand of Princess Ann’s lace along the far edge of the road.

One by one, the cats in the road slipped off to the sides, then the fox-cat bolted straight across at the Sphinx, and together the two darted up the lawn of a house tucked into the woods.

Nearby, a yellow sign tacked to a tree said, “Bear Crossing.” Continue reading

The rose garden

By Greg Stene

As a long-time shooter and advertising copywriter, I really do not like visual cliches. Everything in me says I should look to create something new. And photos of flowers are not new. But in looking at the shots I took recently at Portland’s Rose Garden and viewing them at 100% for editing purposes, I saw that smaller sections of the whole became something completely different. Viewing the flower was transformed into another kind of experience. And that change in meaning is what these images are about.  They have little to do with flowers anymore.

The Journey

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WordsDay Special: Well read and well grounded

After feeding twenty-six books into my head in thirty days, I’d like to say that I’m letting my brain decompress, but I’ll be honest: I’m still reading. In fact, I have two books going right now, Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself and Barbara Kingsolver’s High Tide in Tucson. I want to hit up Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and Wendell Barry’s agrarian essays, too, and I want to spend some time with David Cushman’s book on The Wilderness, Bloody Promenade. Maybe then I’ll be done. Maybe.

But there’s David Gessner’s Sick of Nature. There’s Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. There’s George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. And there’s still John Muir looming over everything, a backdrop to much of what I’ve read, as significant as the Sierra Nevadas, as significant as Thoreau and Walden.

So many books, so little time. Continue reading

Rachel Carson and the power of wonder

#22: The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson; photographs by Nick Kelsh (1996)

It isn’t often that I get to read someone else’s love letters. But read Rachel Carson’s work and you’ll see that’s just what she’s writing. She writes of the sea with a profound, abiding love.

When I spent time with Carson along the edge of the sea a few weeks ago in Maine, I came across references to a Carson book I’d not heard of before. I had already added one extra Carson book to my reading list, and worried about the possible tangent a second might take me on, but in the end, her work resonated with me too strongly to pass it up. The title was too alluring to pass up: The Sense of Wonder. Continue reading

Scenes from the Appalachian Trail, just for us

Turned out to be a pretty good day for hiking on Monday…

In my piece this morning about Bill Bryson’s Appalachian Trail book, A Walk in the Woods, I mentioned that a friend of mine was going to be hiking the AT today. She happened to read the piece before she set out, so she decided to send us back some pictures. (Photos by Caity Stuart) Continue reading

Bill Bryson's pleasant "Walk"

#21: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson (1998)

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and had a burning urge to go hike the Appalachian Trail. Of course, that might also have something to do with the fact that my girlfriend is heading there today to hike part of it. But whatever.

My experience with the AT is pretty limited, although the few places I’ve crossed its path are places I’ve crossed it a lot. The spot that comes to mind most is a foot bridge that crosses over I-90 in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. I’ve never stepped on that leg of the AT, but I’ve driven under it about a thousand times.

By foot, I’ve encountered the AT most frequently at Harper’s Ferry, WV. The trail crosses the Potomac River and rises up to Maryland Heights where it vanishes into the woods before climbing even further to run along the crest of South Mountain. In fact, my favorite stretch of the AT heads into the woods at the northern border of Gapland State Park several miles north of Harper’s Ferry. I remember a misty afternoon Continue reading

The setting sun and "The Living Great Lakes"

#14: The Living Great Lakes: In Search of the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis (2003)

Lake Erie taught me how important it is to watch the sun set. It was the summer of 2010, and I was in the middle of my divorce. The semester, my worst ever, had just ended, followed immediately by a whirlwind trip to China. I had a younger woman giving me the yo-yo treatment. I needed to figure out a way to calm the tumult in my life.

So for nearly a week, in early June, I found myself a spot along the breakwall that stretches out from Walnut Beach toward the lighthouse that guards the entrance to Ashtabula’s habor. I watched the sun, bright as a blood orange, dip to the horizon and vanish into the lake. Continue reading

Revisiting Vermont

#13: The Frog Run by John Elder (2002)

My own experiences in Vermont constitute the worst times of my life, through no particular fault of the Green Mountain State. There, in a third-floor cinder block tenement in Montpelier, I spent most of my eighth-grade year living in fear of my mother’s drug-abusing boyfriend. A decade and a half later, I thought it ironic to find myself back there for a low-residency M.F.A. program, uncomfortable about facing the bad mojo from my past—little realizing that I was about to deal with more bad mojo there as my marriage began to unravel.

So my Vermont and John Elder’s Vermont strike me as two different places—different states of mind, at the very least. Continue reading

Exploring American geographies and the threshold of memory

#12: About This Life by Barry Lopez (1998)

The pieces collected in Barry Lopez’s About This Life profess to be “journeys on the threshold of memory.” They take the shape of essays, travel stories, and memoirs, although Lopez firmly plants them all in the first-person perspective. Most relate in some way to a specific place. At the heart of the book, though, his essay “The American Geographies” speaks most directly to the importance of landscape—and how people continue to misunderstand and even misrepresent what that really means.

“The real American landscape is a face of almost incomprehensible depth and complexity,” he says. Continue reading