a group of water buffalo standing in a field, looking at the camera

Unhewn Stones 06.07.2013

Raining words and remonstration

The rain falls, and falls, and falls some more. The sky showers invective like a prophet of Israel. The storm lightens and I think it will end, but it has only paused for breath before resuming its tirade. Last night an inch sat in the plastic bin I’d neglected on the porch; this morning an index finger’s depth, three joints, three inches, give or take. By afternoon the bin was full, and still the rain falls: five inches? Six? A rain gauge offers needless precision, a mindless answer to mindless curiosity: did his listeners count Jeremiah’s words? But even Jeremiah nodded off eventually. Meanwhile the chickens, who bear most directly this philippic — as ever the poor and innocent take the brunt of the moralizing while the rich and guilty burrow under complacent roofs and watch through glass — the chickens cower under trees, hunker grumpily in the rising mud and release now and then a desolate squawk that pierces the white noise of the downpour. They too have a house, but the mist and dampness invade it, and they are not overly fond of close company nor, perhaps, sufficiently intelligent to think of it. Worms flee the flooded soil, out of the frying pan into the fire, or out of the sink and onto the plate: from the buckthorn a robin sings of his lunch. The wood is a swamp, my walking path a river in whose current a beetle drifts on a raft made of leaves. The downspout rumbles like a dump truck on the street. And now, at last, as if to compete, thunder — portending what? More of the same? Thunder missed his cue, sometime yesterday afternoon. Who has ears, listen, but no one is listening any longer, only wondering when it will end so we can join the birds for the doxology and go home to dinner.

Unhewn Stones 06.03.2013

A cultural sleep

Jessica Gamble describes new techniques and technologies whose inventors would radically reduce or eliminate the human need for sleep:

Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is a promising technology in the field of sleep efficiency and cognitive enhancement. Alternating current administered to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex through the thinnest part of the skull has beneficial effects almost as mysterious as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), its amnesia-inducing ancestor. Also known as ‘shock therapy’, ECT earned a bad name through overuse, epitomised in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and its 1975 film adaptation, but it is surprisingly effective in alleviating severe depression. We don’t really understand why this works, and even in today’s milder and more targeted ECT, side effects make it a last resort for cases that don’t respond to drug treatment. In contrast to ECT, tDCS uses a very mild charge, not enough directly to cause neurons to fire, but just enough to slightly change their polarisation, lowering the threshold at which they do so.

Using a slightly different technique — transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which directly causes neurons to fire — neuroscientists at Duke University have been able to induce slow-wave oscillations, the once-per-second ripples of brain activity that we see in deep sleep. Targeting a central region at the top of the scalp, slow-frequency pulses reach the neural area where slow-wave sleep is generated, after which it propagates to the rest of the brain. Whereas the Somneo mask is designed to send its wearers into a light sleep faster, TMS devices might be able to launch us straight into deep sleep at the flip of a switch. Full control of our sleep cycles could maximise time spent in slow-wave sleep and REM, ensuring full physical and mental benefits while cutting sleep time in half. Your four hours of sleep could feel like someone else’s eight. Imagine being able to read an extra book every week — the time adds up quickly.

The benefits are so obvious that Gamble doesn’t actually argue in favor of all this technological wonder and post-evolutionary glory; instead, she insists that no present-day person can logically argue against it:

The question is whether the strangeness of the idea will keep us from accepting it. If society rejects sleep curtailment, it won’t be a biological issue; rather, the resistance will be cultural…. Such attempts are likely to meet with powerful resistance from a culture that assumes that ‘natural’ is ‘optimal’. Perceptions of what is within normal range dictate what sort of human performance enhancement is medically acceptable, above which ethics review boards get cagey. Never mind that these bell curves have shifted radically throughout history. Never mind that if we are to speak of maintaining natural sleep patterns, that ship sailed as soon as artificial light turned every indoor environment into a perpetual mid-afternoon in May.

Setting aside, for the moment, the matter of sleep, there’s an interesting assumption lurking beneath that paragraph, and I think it’s worth ferreting out, because the opponents Gamble imagines share it. Read on

Unhewn Stones 05.31.2013

The insignificance of man in the face of modern magazine publishing

Nothing demonstrates to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy like his inability to unsubscribe from a magazine.

(All right, fine: Lots of things demonstrate to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy. But this one is particularly stupid, and sufficiently banal that I can laugh at it, unlike, say, losing my job, which was less obviously humorous.)

Here’s what happened. I used to subscribe to a hipstery sort of design and decorating magazine called ReadyMade, full of the sort of things I’d have wanted to make and do in my impoverished twenties. I read it in my late thirties out of ironic nostalgia for my own youthful irony. That magazine went out of business with six months left on my subscription, which I had been unlikely to renew anyway, and the parent company (Globo-Zines Inc.) sent me Better Homes and Gardens instead, a thoroughly un-hipsterish and unironic publication and one whose design notions I had even less desire to emulate. I see that the two magazines have ostensibly the same purpose, but the demographics are completely different. The one ran ads for new releases by twee little indy bands; the other shills Campbell’s soup. And where ReadyMade at least pretended that you were actually going to do some of the projects described in its pages, Better Homes and Gardens doesn’t seem to. It seems designed solely to sell paint.

I usually ignore it until my daughter spots it and unsheaths it from its plastic wrapper. (ReadyMade didn’t come wrapped in plastic, but arrived with its cover charmingly, insouciantly crinkled.) She’s a junior art director, so she finds this kind of thing fascinating. Her contribution to Sunday dinner is folding the napkins into boots and butterflies. But even she can’t get anything out of BHG, except for one article in the December issue on tying bows from ribbon. Being homeschooled, and raised in part by me, she makes fun of it mercilessly. Read on

Unhewn Stones 05.21.2013

A loss for words

This week I had to deal, second-hand, with someone deeply, personally, angrily offended by the indiscriminate use of vulgar language — not mine, and the circumstances really aren’t all that interesting, but it got me thinking in a meandering sort of way about why someone might or might not reasonably be offended by vulgar and obscene language. There are far more important things to be offended by (poverty, homelessness, random violence, endless war, greed, hatred, sex trafficking, the casual abstraction of human beings for profit, pleasure, politics and convenience), and language formerly known as “bad” is so ubiquitous that I’m not sure where anyone would escape it long enough to remain offended by it.

And yet, on reflection, I decided that that is precisely the problem: that words meant to be extreme are ubiquitous — and as a consequence it becomes more difficult to express ideas that really are extreme, even really important and good ones. I’m not arguing against any word or words, or even against “strong language” that transgresses the limits of what’s allowable in polite society. What bothers me the more I consider it is the normalization of that transgression. It seems to me a problem for two reasons. First, which ought to be fairly obvious, without some common ground of language strangers can’t safely have a conversation without fear of giving or taking offense. But second, and to me more interestingly, because normalizing transgression makes transgression impossible. If “strong language” becomes conversationally standard, there’s no way to express strong feelings. There is now no longer a word capable of expressing the sort of outrage that certain choice words once could.

Take a safely literary example: Victor Hugo’s retelling of the Battle of Waterloo in Les Misérables. As the day wanes and the tide turns inexorably against the French a legion under the command of “an obscure officer whose name was Cambronne” sees the end nigh but will give up neither the field nor the Empire: Read on

Cheap Poetry 05.12.2013

Nine miles along the Eno River

On Friday I hiked the portion of North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail that runs along the Eno River, about nine miles from Roxboro Road in Durham through West Point on the Eno Park, across Guess Road into the Eno River State Park, and then to Pleasant Green in Orange County. One day, when the trail is complete, I hope to hike the whole state. For the moment, this will have to do.

These are my snapsnots from the walk.


The rains part like a curtain; the underbrush
Stirs with sultry buzz and hum. Summer?

Goose on the river watches my confusion:
Which way the trail? Which hue the blaze?
He’s not telling.

I sit and rest by spring’s last bluets,
Pale and drooping in the summer heat.

The sycamore leans out over the river,
Stretched root to branch like a diver ready to leap,
Stripping his bark as he goes.

Swallowtails loop around the weeds
In search of some forgotten nectar,
While laurel clings to rocks above. Read on

Essays 05.01.2013

Ordinary miracles

Saturday afternoon my daughter and I volunteered on a local farm tour, at a farm where the two main attractions are goats and pickles. I’ve got a cabinetful of pickles at home, but no goats, and I figured even if a nine year-old girl got bored checking people in and welcoming them to a farm then surely baby goats would keep her entertained for hours. I was more right than I’d bargained for, as it turned out.

We arrived too early. We were supposed to arrive half an hour before the tour started, to set up and get the lay of the land, but I got us there half an hour before that. The farm was, I thought (and Google Maps confirmed) over half an hour away, and I had to stop off to buy chicken feed. But the map was conservative, the trip easy and the errand quick, and so I allowed far too much time. As I climbed out of the car and saw Mike, the farmer, walking towards me, I apologized and promised to stay out of the way.

“No problem,” he said, friendly but a little hurried. “In fact we’ve got a goat giving birth right at the moment, if your daughter wants to watch.”

I leaned back into the car. “Ivy, you want to watch a goat give birth?”
A second passed while my words sunk in — it is not the sort of question she is used to being asked — and then she bounded out of the car. Read on

Cheap Poetry 04.30.2013

Cheap poetry, April 2013

If you’re new to this, read the Cheap Poetry Manifesto.

Scattered on the path, the maple blossoms
Drops of blood shed by the spring’s new birthing.
The rain will wash it clean, baptize the season.

The infant leaves, so pale and paper-smooth,
Uninked by summer, by insects yet unbitten,
Still bear the hope of every imaginable season:
A book that pleases most while yet unwritten.

Loblolly, lo unfaithful pine
Spills his seed upon the breeze,
Films in yellow yours and mine
And maketh every one to sneeze.

Some birds have songs that ring out like a bell tone,
But the wood thrush rings, I think, more like a cell phone.

I turn on the game: It’s 14 to 2,
The other guys. What is a Phils fan to do
With 8 runs to Halladay, 4 charged to Durbin?
Put down that beer, friend, and go for the bourbon.

Cheap Poetry 04.26.2013

An unfortunate accident

Your wobbly letters on the little jars,
The i’s like lollypops, the g’s like smiles,
From your younger self alert the nose:
This one cumin, that one coriander,
Saffron, sumac, cardamom, paprika–
No, that’s cayenne, dad! –Lighthearted warning
To which (as to so many of your words)
I might have listened.

Cheap Poetry 04.01.2013

Cheap poetry, January–March

It was a slow winter for poetry, but here’s the roundup. If you’re new to this, read the Cheap Poetry Manifesto.

The decorations are put away in pieces and in bitses
but the holiday ain’t over ’til we eat the Christmas citrus.

Despite the ululations
of nine year-old relations
that I know,
It just won’t snow.

Through the office window I hear
A trill so fine and dandy
I know whene’er it greets my ear
The birds are getting randy. Read on

Unhewn Stones 03.13.2013

Do convenience foods undermine the family dinner?

An article in The Atlantic suggests that they do:

Even when all members of a family were at home, eating dinner together was a challenge in many households. Why?

Two less acknowledged reasons for why family dinners were a challenge for the families stand out: convenience foods filling refrigerators and cupboards supplied individualized snacks and meals for family members; and family dinnertime often gave way to intergenerational conflicts surrounding children’s food choices. The consumption of preprepared convenience foods, many of which are packaged as individual meals, stand alongside busy schedules as a root factor in undermining dinner as a family event.

The article, adapted from a book-length study by a pair of UCLA researchers of “dual-earning middle-class families” in Los Angeles, describes families in which the mere fact that kids snack frequently and eat “special” meals makes it difficult for them to grasp, or parents to enforce, shared mealtimes. Oh, and guess what else? Using packaged convenience foods did not save these families time over cooking from scratch. Read on

smiley guy

Welcome

…to the New Agrarian. I have been planting content here off and on since 2002, with occasional attempts at cultivation and pruning. All of it swirls around more or less agrarian ideas: food and agriculture, including some practical things, but also craft, community, sustainability, nature, and place. As you might guess, I’ve changed my mind a few times on all these topics since I started a decade ago. I cultivate, but not always in neat rows.

The fifty-cent tour

The site is divided loosely into ideas and actions, as you’ll see in the right-hand column. Ideas include essays, which are distinguished from unhewn stones by being longer, more carefully thought out, and, well, more hewn, I suppose. There are also a few stories and what I call cheap poetry.

You’ll find how-to sorts of things listed separately under Actions: raising ducks, food and recipes, and woodworking. I also write about those topics more generally under “ideas,” along with other skills I don’t feel qualified to teach, like gardening.

For another path through all this, try the topics list, which starts with (of course) agrarianism and will be expanded soon.

Agrarian basics

Some favorites