October 29, 2016

Warming up a (metaphorical) pen in hell

The late great American writer known as Mark Twain was said to have warmed up his pen in hell when he felt indignation about this or that social injustice.

Here's  free sneak preview: I'm no Mark Twain, and the extent of my pen or computer doesn't reach to hell (yet), but I'm getting ready to open a can on a right wing foundation that to me is about as morally disgusting and contemptible as can be, which is quite an accomplishment. The group is the Foundation for Government Accountability, a euphemistic name for a billionaire funded and ALEC supported group dedicated to taking  away food and health care from poor people.

WV's Republican-led legislature has brought someone (apparently well fed, by the way) from this group on more than one occasion and I'm sure they'll be back soon. Depending on how things go in a few days, they may even write legislation for the coming session.

Here's a little background on these charm school dropouts and here's a great editorial from the Gazette about them. You'll hear more from me soon, inshallah.

October 26, 2016

Forest and trees

This op-ed of mine appeared in Wednesday's Gazette Mail:

Last fall, I was in a delegation to Palestine and Israel. Politics, religion and culture aside, what struck me most about the landscape was the contrast with West Virginia.

The scenery was striking, with plenty of hills. After all, many of the big events in the Bible take place on mountains. But I couldn’t help but notice the absence of the blanket of trees that covers most of the Mountain State.

Say what you want about West Virginia — I certainly have — but at least it’s a lush, green place in season.

It’s been said that before the arrival of Europeans, a squirrel could swing from tree to tree across the state (assuming it could hop rivers). That forest provided a habitat for a great diversity of plants and animals and resources for native people living and passing through the area. It would also provide shelter, game and more for later settlers from Europe and elsewhere.

Our old-growth, virgin forests were among the first casualties when West Virginia became an economic colony of outside business interests.

According to historian John Alexander Williams, the greatest change that came in the wake of industrialization was the disappearance of the Appalachian forest: “as late as 1870 there were at least ten million acres of virgin forest in West Virginia, covering nearly two-thirds of the state’s surface. In 1900 this figure had been reduced by half; in 1910, by more than four-fifths. The virgin forest was gone by 1920.”

This destruction disrupted the traditional subsistence farming and the local food economy and altered ecosystems, erosion patterns and waterways.

The waste left by timbering created a fertile ground for forest fires. According to historian Ron Lewis, “The extent of the damaged cause by these fires is staggering. In 1908, for example, the number of fires reached 710, burning an area of 1,703,850 acres, more than one-tenth of the entire surface of the state, one-fifth of its forested area, and 3 percent of the state’s standing timber.” Of these, more than 70 percent were caused by locomotives and 20 percent by sawmills and logging operations.

Needless to say, most West Virginians didn’t benefit from this transformation. In the end, Lewis concludes “Railroad and timber development did not stimulate the growth of a vibrant agricultural sector, but, rather, forced farmers to either abandon the countryside for a new life in the industrial towns or face a life of rural marginality at the periphery of the American, and now global, economy.”

Williams noted one more change in the wake of deforestation: “For the first time in its history, West Virginia come to be thought of as a place of ugliness as well as beauty.”

Today, the forests have recovered to some extent. West Virginia is the third most forested state (behind Maine and New Hampshire). But if our history teaches anything, it is that responsible care for natural resources such as forests matters. A lot.

Aside from their economic, ecological and recreational value and contribution to our quality of life, forests provide a buffer against floods by retaining excess rainwater, preventing erosion and extreme run offs, and slowing down the flow of water to low points.

I visited Nicholas County shortly after the June flood and saw thousands of acres of clear cut land. I couldn’t help but wonder how this impacted communities like Richwood. The clear cutting didn’t put the water there, but it sure didn’t slow it down once it hit the ground.

In light of all this, I found it surprising and disturbing that budget cuts this year led to the laying off of 37 foresters from the state Division of Forestry. It wasn’t like the agency was flush to start with. More than 10 years ago, a state report aimed at disaster prevention found that “the Division of Forestry is currently under-staffed to accomplish all of the inspections, firefighting, and enforcement responsibilities assigned to the division by the state.”

Now, after a late summer dry spell, we’ll also be less able to deal with forest fire season. According to a forestry official quoted by Metro News, it’s not unusual to have 20 forest fires a day in some parts of the state.

Local volunteer fire departments will do what they can, but their main mission is to protect lives and structures and they often don’t have the people to deal with hundreds or thousands of acres of burning hills, not to mention the equipment and often the expertise.

(I can attest to the expertise thing first hand in my short and inglorious stint as a volunteer firefighter, when in a single night of fighting a brush fire I narrowly survived a box turtle attack and sustained my only injury, a burn from a flare and not the fire itself. The flare started it.)

On a more serious note, these layoffs could wind up costing us a lot one way or another in terms of hell and/or high water. It’s just another example — along with cuts to higher education and services and a crumbling infrastructure — of West Virginia’s downward slide, which is at least partially self-inflicted. It could be remedied given the political will.

October 25, 2016

Quite a day

In case you felt any hoodoo about today, there are plenty of reasons for it. First, this is St. Crispin's Day, which means it's the anniversary of the battle of Agincourt in 1415, which is celebrated in Shakespeare's Henry V. The best known part of this is the rousing speech by the king wherein he spurred on his outnumber soldiers to victory:

"he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”

You can watch Kenneth Branagh's version of it here.

It's also Karate Day. On this date in 1936, the leading masters of Okinawan karate, including one who taught the one the one who taught me, met in Naha to discuss changing the name of the martial art from one that could be translated as "Chinese hands" to karate do or "the way of the empty hand," which better reflected it spiritual component.

Around the world some people are celebrating that by practicing 100 repetitions of a karate kata,which are formal exercises of prearranged series of techniques performed solo. For an example, click here to see a performance of seisan, the signature kata of a style I practice.

100 repetitions of a kata is way harder than it sounds--I'd rather run 15 miles on hills. I plan to do a few today, but it won't be 100.

Today many Okinawans will "pray that Okinawa’s traditional karate will continuously contribute to world peace and happiness." I find the long tradition of Okinawan karate masters linking the art to world peace without embarrassment or irony to be endearing. And they might be on to something.

So, Crispin or karate, enjoy the day!

(Note St. Crispin and his companion Crispinian are the patron saints of shoemakers and cobblers. They were said to have been beheaded on this date during the persecution of the Roman emperor Diocletian around the year 285. They probably didn't enjoy the day.)