Author Archives: bewatts

About bewatts

Curmudgeon, writer, semi-retired book publisher, lover of cities and forests and lakes.

A Tale of Two Cities: As True Here as in LA

Terrific post by a school teacher (writing on the DailyKos site.) He’s talking about the disparity between the lives of his students in the impoverished Watts neighborhood of LA and a wealthy LA suburb, but he could be talking about children in inner city Rochester and one of our wealthy suburbs. His main points: Poor kids face incredible barriers to survival, much less success. And don’t blame the public schools or teachers for problems created by inequality. Two of my favorite bits:

I don’t think the problem is that public education fails kids. The problem is that our public education system is asked to confront a problem that is bigger than it can possibly handle. Schools are where the rubber meets the road for all our social neglect. Poverty is the real issue here . . .

Terrorism is a terrible danger to be sure, but our tendency to get sucked into the drama of it distracts us from even more devastating and urgent problems like economic inequality and global warming: two issues that will cause far more upheaval, destruction and heartache than ISIS could ever hope to create. Indeed, the slow burning fuse of economic inequality is eroding the very foundations of our society. . . The American middle class is literally drying up before our eyes. We aren’t just a nation of “Have” and “Have Nots;” everyday we are becoming a nation of “Have Everything” or “Have Nothing at All.” We’re becoming an economically polarized nation like Brazil.

The Tale of Two Cities

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A beautiful native

Suddenly, this week, the Juneberry in my front yard decided it was time to turn orange.bright orange leaves on Juneberry bush in October

I don’t know why more people don’t grow this robust and lovely native, Amelanchier canadensis. Glowing scarlet and orange leaves in autumn, a cloud of white flowers in early spring that provide nectar for pollinators when little else is in bloom, and sweet fruit for birds and people in the summer. What could be better?

This spring, I caught two little girls grabbing handfuls of berries from the bush in my front yard when the fruit was still red and tart (just as this Cedar Waxwing did in May). I promised the girls they could pick lots of berries if they would only wait for a week or so, until they were ripe, and ask me first. The girls agreed and zoomed off on their bicycles. Weeks went by. The birds and I gorged on sweet, dark berries until they were all gone.

About a month after the last fruit had fallen, the girls showed up again in my yard. “Where are the berries?,” they asked. “You said we could eat them.” They looked up at me with wide eyes, gaping in amazement, when I explained that they were too late, and would have to wait for another spring for the plant to bloom and set fruit. This might have been their first encounter with the connection between food we eat and the cycle of the seasons.

This small woodland tree or shrub is also called Shadblow, because it blooms in early spring when the shad run up wild rivers from the Atlantic to spawn.

Everything is Connected

Just read about the death on 10/1/2012 of the scientist and activist Barry Commoner, and was reminded of his four rules of ecology:

1. Everything is connected to everything else.
2. Everything must go somewhere.
3. Nature knows best.
4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

And then I read Consumer Reports on arsenic in rice. Guess what? Barry was right. Everything is connected. Everything must go somewhere. If we dump poisons on the soil that feeds us, we end up with poison in our bodies.

Those who defend destructive agricultural practices usually point to the short-term benefits–we can feed more people, we can keep food prices low. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. The bill always comes due eventually. How will we feed ourselves when we have so poisoned the water and soil that the food they produce is no longer safe to eat?

I found one darkly humorous tidbit in the Consumer Reports article. In some parts of the southeastern U.S., arsenic levels are so high it hurts the rice plants and reduces yields. So what did the USDA do? Did it say, whoa, better not grow rice here unless you can clean up the arsenic? No, the USDA, acting as a (taxpayer supported) subsidiary of agribusiness, invested in research to develop arsenic-resistant strains of rice. Which, presumably, still absorb arsenic and deliver it to our bodies.
Thanks, USDA. I’m sure the parents who have been feeding their babies rice cereal appreciate your looking out for us.

Hail and farewell Barry Commoner, scientist, prophet, fighter for environmental justice.

How the books moved west

In the book publishing business in this country, new books are announced twice a year, in the spring and fall lists, and editorial calendars and publicity are planned around this cycle. Or at least they used to be. But why? I’ve been reading Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows. They say New York publishers beat out their competitors because the Erie Canal gave them access to the hinterlands. They could get the latest books, hot off the presses, to customers in the interior faster than publishers in other cities. And so NYC became the center of publishing in America.

And the Erie Canal was not passable in winter. Hence the fall and spring lists.

The building of the Erie Canal was a public investment in infrastructure that had huge payoffs almost immediately. Getting people or goods past the Appalachian ridge and across a mostly roadless, heavily wooded frontier became much easier. The Erie Canal made Rochester a boom town. Imagine those books, along with goods from all over the world, floating up the Hudson, through the Mohawk valley and along the canal, rising at every lock, to Lake Erie and on to the Midwest.

old erie canal locks

The old Erie canal locks, now a spillway, where the canal crosses the Niagara Escarpment at Lockport.

As the oil money flows . . .

Evidently, the fossil fuel industry is awash in an endless supply of money, a vast underground reservoir of oily cash, which they can tap to try to persuade you and me that they are our very good friends and acting in our best interests.

Modern digital printing makes it possible for national magazines to carry different ads in copies delivered to different parts of the country.  I assume that’s why I’m seeing so many oil industry magazine ads these days–they’re trying to influence public opinion here in New York State, where political decisions are being made about what restrictions to impose on hydrofracking.

It’s pretty scary that multinational energy corporations have the ability to flood our consciousness with propaganda and to buy access to and influence over our elected officials. Scary not because they’re evil, but because they are corporations. Their purpose is to do what is best for their bottom line. Not what’s best for the environment, for jobs, for people, for communities.

But, oddly, I stumbled on some encouraging news at dirtyenergymoney.org, a web site that tracks fossil fuel industry money going to politicians. The site shows how much money Congressional Reps and Senators have been given, but also shows whether they have voted for the energy industry or for the public interest on a number of bills. When I plug in my zip code (14609) and look at our local reps, money received seems to correlate with time in office and whether they’re in the Senate or House.  So Chuck Schumer has raked in the most oil money. BUT there’s no correlation between donations received and votes. All the Democrats (Schumer, Gillibrand, Slaughter) have perfect voting records (at least as rated by the environmental groups that sponsor the site.) And, conversely, Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY25) has a perfectly awful record, voting again and again to cripple the EPA and protect tax breaks for the industry.

So, maybe money can’t buy everything.