Sunday, September 30, 2012

Enlightenment creeps into the hinterlands

One contractor, recommending another for a job on our house:  "You should give R. a call.  He's gay, but he does good work."

Friday, September 28, 2012

Like Clockwork

Anybody who has the slightest connection to the world of lutherie knows that every year, some engineer* in some corner of the world will discover the Secret of Stradivari--some odd treatment or technique that will allow any modern builder to replicate "the" sound** of the classic Cremonese instruments.  It's like those of us who follow biology know that every year--at least, if the popular press is to be believed--some researcher will discover "the" cure for cancer.  Really, if all the stories in the newspapers claiming that a cure for cancer is just around the corner were true, the dread disease would have been history long ago.

That last sentence should be in quotes--I lifted it verbatim from an article in this week's Economist that discusses a paper about why science journalism sucks with such regularity.  The paper*** focuses on the ten journal articles about ADHD that garnered the most attention from the popular media, and what happens after the big splash.  It concludes that the findings in each of the "top ten" are novel, generate testable hypotheses, and in eight out of ten cases, are unsupported by subsequent research. The paper refrains from slamming the media, but points out that the popular press is easily impressed by high-impact journals, top-tier universities, and seems unwilling to follow up and look for confirmation of splashy results. 

The Economist cops to some blame for this state of affairs, but also apportions some blame to the scientists themselves, because the follow-up articles don't make it into the same high-impact journals.  (Nobody mentions one of my least favorite things, the University Press Release, which is often horrible and swallowed whole by the media.)  So, it admonishes itself, and then lets itself off the hook.

And, on the very same page, there is this article: "Magic Mushrooms--Violins constructed from infected wood sound like those of Stradivari," about how some engineer in Switzerland has discovered the Secret of Stradivari...

*I don't know why, but it's practically always an engineer

**a bogus goal in itself; for one thing, there is no unified sound of Cremona, or even of any single maker, and for another, one of the things that makes these fiddles so prized is their protean sound.

***Gonon F, Konsman J-P, Cohen D, Boraud T (2012) Why Most Biomedical Findings Echoed by Newspapers Turn Out to be False: The Case of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044275.  It's PLOS, so it's open access, and it's an amusing paper, so go read it.  


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Tuesday Tool

One of the first projects we started here was fencing.  We purchased some wire cutters and fencing pliers (廉价 brand) for the first part of the job, and they worked OK for a bit, and then started falling apart.  After removing the old fencing, we hired some pros to install new fencing.  I asked them what tools to get, and the boss guy fetched out his pliers and said "these."

The fencing project is ongoing, and since then we've had a series of electricians come by.  I've always asked them what tools they like, and they have recommended an odd kind of screwdriver and the same pliers. 

I've spent the last two days working on fencing, making a quarantine enclosure for an incoming goat.  The 廉价 brand pliers were dying, so I went to Milo's shop for new pliers.  I told the guy there I was fencing, and he said "Huh.  I did fences for fifteen years.  This is what you need.  I had one pair, lasted the entire time, it was pretty much all I used."  Then he fetched down the same pair of pliers. 

So, this week's tool has got to be the Klein Tools 9 inch high-leverage side cut pliers.  Model D213-9NE. 
I used it hard all day today, and it works great.  Still keen and strong, no sign of failing.  If only the same could be said for me.  I'm a wreck.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Overcoming carpenter's block

I am tardy with my updates on the addition.  At the time of the last update, it had two walls but no roof. 
Now, it's got all the walls, roof, windows, weather seal, and rough-ins for electricity, plumbing, and heat. Here's an extremely truncated review of what's been going on on the outside:

A lot of work.  I didn't do much of it--framing a structure and roofing are things I'm content to leave to the pros, who did their work with (mostly) competence and efficiency*.  I (and brothers M and H) can take credit for the wrapping job.  The exterior of the addition has been in this state for a month or so--been very busy with the interior and with other projects.

However, winter is coming, and rain with it, so it's imperative to get the exterior of the addition finished.  Today I started sawing wood for the window trim on the addition.  It should not be that big a deal.  After all, I have been whacking and hacking and pounding and sawing at the house for months now.  However, I've been putting it off.  All that pounding and sawing has been either demolition (fun!) or invisible--structural stuff, or in the attic or basement.  Now, I'm working on a very visible feature of the house, and I've been in the thrall of carpenter's block--kind of like putting off cutting the f-holes on a violin. 

I'm trying to recreate the look (and carpentry) of the original window frames on the rest of the house, and it's a bit of a challenge. New vinyl windows are attached to the sub-siding on the outside of the wall, so they protrude from the wall.  However, the old windows (and the windows we replaced them with) sit within the wall.  Recreating the look of the existing windows without having them bug out takes some fussing, and I spent a day making a "rough draft" of the window design out of scrap wood and some reclaimed siding:

This looks OK, and got the structural seal of approval from the contractor, so I went and purchased a truck-full of cedar and spent today turning a lot of it into sawdust, and the remainder into frames.  Having overcome my block, I'm going to spend at least another day cutting some of the more fiddly bits.  Hopefully, next week we'll see some nicely framed windows, and I can get to putting up the siding. 

Also, hopefully, it won't rain.

*There's always something.  The four windows on the end were originally misplaced, and there have been a variety of other futzy things.  You just don't want to be away when the contractors are at work--and truthfully, they want you there too. It's like having an editor, it guarantees the end product will be better.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wednesday Words/Numbers

Q:  What do you have to add to the following numbers to make them equal?
a) 1433
b) 5113
c) 1391
d) 2765
e) 5773
e) 37

a) AH
b) Kali Yuga
c) Solar Hijri
d) ab urbe condita
e) l'b'reshit ha-olam
f) DK

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fossils from the walls

It's been too long since there's been an update on the house.  This is not because there hasn't been any news, but because too much has been happening and I haven't had the chance to pause and write about it.

I have to admit, as I have been poking about every nook and cranny of this old house, that I have entertained hopes of finding some buried treasure or precious memento.  Thus far, I have been mostly disappointed.  No treasure.  We have found a few things that are interesting, though.

Part of the work of making our addition has been to break the wall between the back bedroom, the space underneath the stairway, and a room that used to be a bathroom but was more recently a laundry room.  Some of this space will be incorporated into a new, sorta-ADA-compliant bathroom off the bedroom; the space under the stairway will be used for a linen cupboard in the bathroom.

The space under the stairway--a natural place for secreting treasure or a time capsule--yielded nothing except an empty nail box:

I just love the "Phone 121".  It was 1936, so a three-digit phone number isn't too surprising; at the time, Roseburg had a few thousand souls.  I can find some references to Coen Lumber into the 1940's.  The 1940 census contains this entry:
Amusingly, according to some newspaper clippings on Google, Frank Coen (perhaps Richard's brother?) and another Coen Lumber worker opened the shop in Eugene where we've purchased all of our lighting.

The top bit of the stairway (right above the broom handle in the first photo) yielded something a little more interesting.  There's this:

"July 11-36".  (The house was built in 1936.)

And this (I've inverted it, so it can be read):

"Critser & Matlack".  The builders, I'm guessing--though the current contractors had never heard of them, and I can't find any references.  The 1940 census yielded this:

but I can't find any Matlacks (my search was not exhaustive--I just looked at pages for Roseburg, not Glide or the surrounding areas, and I could easily have missed it if it were there). mentions a Jacob Rife Matlack who died here in 1958, but nothing more that I don't have to register for.

Anyway, here's a toast to Richard Coen, Fred Critser, and (Jacob) Matlack, and their excellent materials and handiwork.  May we do their work proud, and may it stand 76 years more in good health and prosperity!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Flora...out o' luck

Remember the five leaf clover L. found?  She found something like twenty four leaf clovers--enough so that they were no longer remarkable.  Alas, the plant producing these superfoliar specimens are no more, browsed to nubbins by the local deer.

Today's newspaper tells me that we've had 55 days without rain, the 18th-longest dry spell since records started in 1899, and it looks to go for a couple of weeks more.  The long summer is hard on the local fauna too.  The local deer have been pushed out of their comfort zone and ever closer to our house.  This was the view out the window a couple of weeks ago:
I noticed a locust sucker in the foreground of the next pic.  Since this picture was taken, the deer have gotten more courageous or desperate, and it has been denuded.

Personally, I'm fine with the weather.  More time for me to finish the siding.   

Thursday, September 13, 2012

About that paper on organic food...

A good biology paper will make you think about life; a few of them make you think about your own life.  A research paper came out this week that made a bit of a splash, and prompted a lot of people—a lot of non-scientists, who may not be used to thinking scientifically—about what they are doing and why.  The paper was a meta-review: essentially, an attempt to compare lots of different studies, with different methodologies, different foci, and different motivations, and reach a coherent conclusion.  The question that the authors were trying to answer is in the title of their paper: “Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?”

The answer is very, very close to “no,” followed by some asterisks.  Some of the asterisks are whether the government approved levels of pesticides are actually safe, and that while the levels of bacterial contamination were comparable, the contaminants in conventional foods were more likely to be antibiotic resistant.  But on the whole, no difference. 

Looking at NPR and the NY Times blogs and their commenters, a few have their faith shaken by facts, but most have their faith reinforced by being liberated from facts.  They turn to attacks on the paper and its authors.  There’s also a fair amount of triumphal crowing from folks who (like my dad, a biochemist) refuse to buy organic on principle. 

So, as a person who tends to buy organic and pay attention to science, what do I think?  I think I’m going to have a heart attack and die of not surprise.  Whether produce is good and good for you or not—as long as it falls within guidelines for pesticides and other contaminants—is a matter of whether the farmer was competent and the food has gotten from farm to you in a timely and careful fashion.  So, why do I tend organic?

I’ll set aside human reasons, although conventional ag inevitably causes worker exposure to nasty chemicals, which is a good reason to favor organic.  I’ll set aside whether there is any safe level of pesticides in food, because there isn’t yet any scientific agreement on the subject.  I’ll also set aside (for now) the effects of using huge amounts of antibiotics that can leak into the environment.  Instead, I’ll (predictably) focus on microbes, since they make the world go ‘round and are more important than people in the long run. 

I love long-term studies (I mean, what is our planet but a long term environmental study?).  The Swiss government started just such a study in 1978, comparing three variations on farming for typical Swiss crops:  conventional agriculture with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizer supplemented with animal manure, organic farming with no herbicides or pesticides and only animal or plant manures, and “biodynamic” farming.   They did not address which produce is better for you, or which tastes better; they’re Swiss, so the conventional stuff was within pretty tight government regulations, and they’re scientists, so all the crops were equally fussed-over.  What they did compare was the performance of the farms as if they were factories, and the health of the farms over the course of decades.  (Just to simplify things, I’m lumping together the results of biodynamic and organic practices, since they were essentially the same.)

I’ll start with the result my dad would point out:  yields in the organic fields just weren’t as high as in the conventional fields.  Potatoes, beets, barley, wheat, it didn’t matter, yields from the organic fields rarely equaled those from the conventional fields, and were generally about 80% of the conventional yields.  This is not a trivial point in a world that’s trying to feed 7 billion people with limited amounts of cropland and ever-more-difficult access to water. 

However, there are other factors that are limiting, and energy is right up there.  Comparison of the energy inputs to get those crop outputs is illuminating.  The researchers figured out how much energy was needed for farming activities such as tilling, and added the substantial energy for making mineral fertilizers, nitrogen, pesticides, and herbicides.  Over a six-year period, they discovered that organic farming took slightly more than half as much energy per hectare, so even though yields per acre were slightly reduced, organic farming was still vastly more efficient.  (I’ll also note that about when this study was published, my dad abandoned his SUV for a Prius.)

Soil is the factory that produces food.  Clearly, organically farmed soil is a different kind of factory from conventionally farmed soil—more efficient with energy, though less efficient with space.  It’s the architecture and the workers in the factory, and how they interact and affect each other, that make the difference. 

In this study, there is a visible difference between organic and conventional soils. 
In this picture of winter wheat seedlings, the biodynamically farmed soil shows more weeds, but the soil looks friable and there are plenty of worm casts.  These differences are quantifiable; water drainage is improved, as well as the ability of the soil to cohere. 

The workers in the factory of soil are microbes and small invertebrates.   It’s not too surprising that organically and biodynamically farmed soil has a lot more life in it—the Swiss study found twice as many earthworms, spiders, and beetles, and much more root-associated fungi.  The sheer mass of microbes was higher, as was both their genetic diversity and (as has been found in similar studies) their enzymatic and metabolic diversity.  We are constantly told that a more diverse workplace is better, and at least in the work done in the soil, this seems to be the case.  To really understand this, though, we need to see what these workers do.

We might think of plants as rugged individualists, gamely taking sunlight and water and CO2 and pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.  In reality, they depend upon soil microbes, both bacteria and fungi, for making many (or most) of their nutrients available and delivering them to their roots.  These microbes break down the components of wood so that the elements therein can be absorbed by plants; they convert chemically inert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that the plant can absorb; symbiotic fungi called mycorrhizae, which grow both in soil and extend their threads into the cells of plant roots, capture these liberated nutrients and inject them directly into the plants.  All the players in this system, plants, fungi, and bacteria, have evolved to work with each other, and all fail to thrive in the absence of the others.  A plant is a visible expression of the health of the soil community.

The Swiss study, as well as studies on Italian rice, Dutch onions, California strawberries, and other combinations of crop and soil, have found that the diversity of the soils microbes and mycorrhizae are higher in organic soils.  (Indeed, as soils go, the champions are wild, uncultivated soils, with many different types of plants growing in them—but that’s not agriculture.)   These soils show increased ability to break down manure, an increased ability to mobilize nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and increased interaction between mycorrhizae and plant roots.     

When the Swiss researchers examined conventionally farmed soil, they found limited microbial diversity, and reduced metabolic diversity (that is, the number of different types of biological reactions occurring).  However, they found increased metabolic activity (that is, the amount of microbial nutrient consumption aimed at just making energy to live, as measured by the amount of CO2 the microbes exhaled).   In the simplified environment of conventional soil, the microbes had to work harder to do less.  This is not a fluke; a similar observation was made in comparing organic and conventional strawberry fields in California.

This illuminates the gross productivity and efficiency differences seen between the conventional and organic systems in the Swiss study.  The conventional soils had greater yield, but (because they are less efficient factories) they required much higher inputs of material and energy.  Organically farmed soils are healthier.  Arguing for conventional farming because arable land is a scarce resource ignores the fact that, unless there is a large input of energy and skill, conventional farming can result in the degradation and loss of that same scarce resource

Of course, factories have more than one product; even the most efficient factory will produce some waste.  Even here, organic farming has some benefits, and these benefits also are a result of the more diverse and efficient microbial community in organically-farmed soils. 

The job of any factory is to convert raw materials into a mix of useful products and waste, hopefully with an emphasis on the former.  Farmers, whether organic or conventional, add raw materials to their soil factory, and they are particularly mindful of the nitrogen they add.  Organic farmers add various forms of manure for their nitrogen content—chicken or cow wastes, or composted legumes.  Conventional farmers will supplement or replace these nitrogen sources with calcium nitrate or anhydrous ammonia (as an aside—production of this fertilizer consumes upwards of 1% of the global human energy budget).  This is the raw material that enters the factory; some of the nitrogen gets incorporated into the plants, but a lot of it will disappear as waste.  And here is where there is a significant difference between conventional and organic soils, again due to their microbial composition. 

Nitrogen compounds are neat.  Most of the earth’s nitrogen is in the form of nitrogen gas (N2) in our atmosphere; this is inert, so chemically unreactive that it is used to protect precious documents and Guiness beer.  A few microbes have learned how to “fix” this atmospheric nitrogen, to make ammonia (NH3), which is like rocket fuel for plant growth.  Lots of soil microbes love to eat ammonia too, but rather than using it for growth, they oxidize it for energy; in the process called nitrification, they take ammonia and make it into nitrate (NO3-).  Nitrate is a mixed blessing; plants can use it, though not nearly as well as ammonia.  Mostly it leaches out of the soil and pollutes waterways, leading to algal blooms and their resultant die-offs and dead zones.  Microbes can also take nitrate in the soil and use it for respiration the same way we use oxygen, in a process called denitrification.  Some denitrifiers convert the nitrate into nitrous oxide (N2O), which disappears from the soil as a gas; it’s not a good thing, given that it can degrade ozone and is also, gram for gram, about 300 times more effective as a “greenhouse gas” than carbon dioxide.  Other denitrifiers use the nitrate more effectively, and convert it back to nitrogen gas. 

Either way, as a result of this nitrogen cycle, a farmer can add nitrogen to the soil and watch some of it disappear as waste; it’s just a matter of whether the added nitrogen disappears by leaching (and polluting the water) as nitrate, by going into the atmosphere as pollution in the form of nitrous oxide, or by going into the atmosphere as benign nitrogen.   Since the nitrogen cycle is largely driven by microbes, and since organic and conventional farming techniques result in different soil microbiota, it seems like a reasonable hypothesis the way nitrogen leaves the soil would differ in organic and conventional situations. 

No matter what form of agriculture, human activity dominates the addition of nitrogen to the soil.  Conventional farmers add over 80 million metric tons of ammonia to the soil every year, and organic farmers add manure.  This, combined with using legumes in crop rotation, determines the start of the nitrogen cycle.  However, according to a study comparing organic and conventional apple orchards in Washington state, the fate of the nitrogen differs significantly.

In the organically fertilized orchard, nitrogen was added in the form of manure; the soil microbiota broke down the manure, so nitrogen entered the soil more slowly, making it easier to be assimilated.  Of the nitrogen that was not used by the trees and left the soil, only 10% leached out as nitrate.  Because of the denitrifying microbes in the soil, 10% was denitrified to N2O, and 80% was denitrified to harmless nitrogen gas. 

In the conventional orchard, nitrogen was added in the form of calcium nitrate, a common agricultural fertilizer.  The same amount of nitrogen was added, and the trees grew as well, with the same amount of nitrogen in their leaves and a comparable amount of nitrogen leaving the orchard as waste.  Here, only 20% of the nitrogen left by microbial denitrification, half as N2O and half as nitrogen gas.  The remaining 80% of the added nitrogen left by leaching out of the soil as harmful nitrate.  There is a striking correlation between the richer microbiota of the organic orchard and the increased ability of the soil to process nitrogen into environmentally benign forms—with, as the authors of this study note, no effect on the yield of fruit. 

Which brings us back to the whole question of whether or not to go organic, and thanks to the news-making review, we can ignore questions of nutrition.  Those who argue against organics point to increased cost, and less efficient use of land.  I think that some of the costs of conventional agriculture are distributed or hidden—increased energy inputs per acre, and the costs of dealing with increased pollution.  Land use may be less efficient in the short term, but unless there is active and conscientious management of conventional soils (another hidden cost), organic soils are healthier and more sustainable. 

The goal is aspirational; right now, organic stuff is more expensive, and that’s a hardship for some.  Many farmers (not to mention some pretty enormous agribusinesses) are pretty set against organic growing.  There’s also situations that are really difficult to address with anything but conventional means.  I am an example; I am using Crossbow to clean up blackberries and poison oak and vinca that have accumulated after several years of neglect.  But, the goal here is a transition to organic, and it is doable and right.

So, imagine I offered you a couple of MP3 players for sale; they are functionally identical, and both will fill your ears and satisfy your musical desires.  However, one costs 20% more than the other.  What’s the difference?  One is made in a coal-powered factory that produces a large amount of toxic wastes and causes damage to its local environment, while the more expensive one is from a renewably-powered factory that actually collects and recycles waste, cleaning its environment.  Which would you choose?

Galván, Guillermo A.,  István Parádi, Karin Burger, Jacqueline Baar,  Thomas W. Kuyper, Olga E. Scholten, and Chris Kik (2009).  Molecular diversity of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi in onion roots from organic and conventional farming systems in the Netherlands.  Mycorrhiza 19(5): 317-328.  Onions, with their weak roots, are quite dependent upon mycorrhizae; since the farms were in polders, the soils were very new to agriculture, but even so, mycorrhizae were present. 

Kramer, Sasha B., John P. Reganold, Jerry D. Glover, Brendan J. M. Bohannan, Harold A. Mooney (2006).  Reduced nitrate leaching and enhanced denitrifier activity in organically fertilized soils.  Proceedings Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 103: 4522-4527.  A neat paper about denitrification, free access. 

Lumini, E., M. Vallino, M. M. Alguacil, M. Romani, and V. Bianciotto (2011).  Different farming and water regimes in Italian rice fields affect arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal soil communities.  Ecological Applications 21 (5): 1696-1707.

Maeder, Paul, Andreas Fliessbach, David Dubois, Lucie Gunst, Padruot Fried, Urs Niggli (2002).  Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming.  Science 296: 1694-1697. This paper documents the Swiss long-term experiment; since this was published, many more details have come out. 

Orr, Caroline H., Angela James, Carlo Leifert, Julia Cooper, and Stephen P. Cummings (2011).  Diversity and Activity of Free-Living Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria and Total Bacteria in Organic and Conventionally Managed Soils.  Appl. Env. Micro. 77(3): 911-919. 

Reeve JR, Schadt CW, Carpenter-Boggs L, Kang S, Zhou J, Reganold JP (2010).  Effects of soil type and farm management on soil ecological functional genes and microbial activities. International Soc. Microbial Ecol. Journal 4(9): 1099-1107.  Good paper, underlines the microbial difference between organic and conventional soils.  Also, for brother M:  Watsonville strawberries. 

Smith-Spangler, Crystal, and, Margaret L. Brandeau, Grace E. Hunter, J. Clay Bavinger, Maren Pearson, Paul J. Eschbach; Vandana Sundaram, Hau Liu, Patricia Schirmer, Christopher Stave, Ingram Olkin, and Dena M. Bravata (2012).  Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review.  Annals of Internal Medicine 157(5): 348-366.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday word

Q:  What word describes both of these?

A:  Quodlibet.

(viz; not exactly the same, but per DK and MK, try singing "My country, 'tis of thee" to Roddy McCorley"

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Tuesday Tool

The Muck boot.  "Chore" model, size 11.

Because, if you've got to fork out the deep bedding in a 12'x16' space used by eight sheep for three months and then power wash the place, you need 'em. 

That is all. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

what in hell / have i done to deserve / all these kittens

It doesn't make for a very satisfying story: it started in the middle, and as soon as we were introduced to the characters, we knew the ending would not be a totally happy one. This was not the fault of the characters--it was a simple fact of their existence.

We were introduced to the story by accident. As I was walking from workshop to house one hot evening a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that some of the wood that I had so carefully stacked to dry in the woodshed had fallen over. I stuck my head in the shed and shone my flashlight in to see how much of my work had been undone, and saw my orderly stacks made into a jumbled pile. Worse, on top of that pile, at the farthest end of the shed, there were twelve little green eyes shining back at me.

Now, in the right place, I like cats. House cats are fun, and I still miss Unnamed Cat. Barn cats can be both fun and useful. However, I hate feral cats. I knew there was a feral cat on our property, a kind of slinky grey thing that I'd occasionally catch prowling around. I also knew that there were at least two mated pairs of quail living near our house, and that no quail chicks survived this year. So, an upset lumber pile suddenly seemed pretty minor compared to a feral cat population boom. The kittens had to go.

Catching the kittens was a challenge--a jumbled log pile is not especially stable for an adult human, and is extremely porous for a young kitten. After an hour's sweaty work (an adventure in itself--it was dark, so we had to use flashlights, and there was as much effort spent in keeping two eager nine-year-old nephews from injury as corralling kittens), the Real Doctor was able grab three kittens, all hissing and clawing. We called it a night, unsure as to whether the other kittens were alive or dead under the shifting logs.

By the next day, the still-free kittens had escaped the woodpile. They had been moved by their mother into a boarded-up section of one of the sheds, visible and accessible only through a drain. A Havahart trap was obtained, and put up in front of the drain; this was too small for the mother cat, but over the next night two more of the kittens were captured, apparently trying to get to their mother. After that, there was still one more kitten, but it had gotten moved by the wily mother, and we didn't know to where.

This last fugitive was captured when the Real Doctor went to feed the other kittens; I was bringing her some newspaper, and noticed a pair of eyes looking at me from under the stack of hay bales. After walling off the room and throwing the bales aside, we cornered and captured the last of the future bird-murderers.

Our niece, L., immediately gave all the kittens saccharine names, and the Real Doctor immediately called the local animal shelter to see about getting rid of them. Unfortunately they were too young for disposal, and we'd have to fatten them up for a couple of weeks until they were about a kilo each before the shelter wanted them. The niece and nephews were all over this delay, and overnight the kittens expanded in size until they occupied some sixty percent of the universe--at least, in the attention of the kids. To the Real Doctor and me, they were another chore, another set of beasts to feed, and cursed with awful-smelling food to boot.

The relationship between a six-year-old girl and kittens is interesting. They were her obsession, but unfortunately for her, the presence of an adult was definitely necessary for her to play with them. She would "walk" them on a leash and rat-harness, and delightedly proclaim how much Mittens or April loved it--while the kitten was splayed, trying to flatten itself into the floor or any corner, ears back and looking terrified. Eventually, both of the young mammals got slightly better at their respective jobs; the niece would proudly point out that Moppet especially loved being carried around by her, oblivious to the fresh scratches all over her upper body. I guess it is better to live in a pleasant fantasy world than in one in which everything is out to get you.

My relationship with the kittens was still somewhat resentful, and predicated on their ultimate delivery to the animal shelter. (The Real Doctor notes that despite this fact, she started enjoying feeding and playing with the kittens, and started not to mind the smell of the cat food.) I suppose they were cute, and if I wanted to I could have bonded with one. Lab rats are also cute, and I have loved them as pets--but I have also murdered a fair number in my career. At some point in the life of this farm, we're probably going to have to butcher some lambs and chickens. So, I did my best to think of the kittens as things to fatten up and get rid of.

Last week, one of the kittens, Attila/Fluffy (The Real Doctor's name*/the niece's name), got adopted by one of the Real Doctor's co-workers as a house cat. The rest I took to the shelter; they were weighing about a kilo each, the perfect weight for adoption, and thanks to the ministrations of our niece and nephews, they had seen the worst of being broken in. The kitten-dumping process is pretty straightforward: you walk in with the cats, certify that they truly don't belong to anybody else, indicate what you can about their provenance and health, sign a statement that the animals shall be as nothing to me, like the dust of the earth, and walk out without them.

Of course, we were left with the mother to deal with; a brief conversation with our neighbor indicated that she was both hard to catch and, with the assistance of a feral tom up the road, annoyingly fecund. Last year she had a litter in the middle of a wall, requiring destruction of the wall to retrieve them. She is also a good mother; the whole time we were fattening her kittens, she would visit them while we slept, loudly bewail the sorrows of her separation, and leave parting gifts of a rat, a vole, half a bunny, and so on. She easily avoided the medium-size Havahart trap we set next to the kittens, and pretty much all we saw of her was her heels as she ran away. Returning from the animal shelter, I stopped at the Co-op and purchased the larger Havahart, and the Real Doctor baited it with some of the stinky cat food and put it next to the now-empty kitten cages.

The next morning, I found Momma Cat in the cage--I almost didn't see her at first, and thought the trap had sprung shut on nothing, since she was dark grey and hidden in the shadows. She looked at me with a fair amount of what I project to be hate, fear, and confusion:
So, it was another trip to the animal shelter, and here we come to the unsatisfying end of the tale. Per the terms of the drop-off, I am not allowed to seek any information about any of the animals; they may get new homes, or they may be euthanised. For kittens, The Real Doctor informs me that the odds are favorable, but they are still odds. For Momma Cat, the odds are worse: she is smart and good looking, an excellent mouser and mother, but feral and lousy pet material. When you read this, she may be dead, executed for the crime of following biological imperatives. The Real Doctor and I both feel some guilt about this--perhaps owing to our own inability to follow the same imperatives--and I made some atonement by a cash donation to the animal shelter. But it's still not a satisfying story. Next year, when we have clearer heads and more time and a more stable environment, we may get a kitten.


The first thing I thought when I saw the kittens in the woodshed, and perhaps an epitaph for Momma Cat, was an archy-and-mehitabel poem by Don Marquis**:

mehitabel and her kittens

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
but am i never to be allowed
to live my own life
i have purposely avoided
matrimony in the interests
of the higher life
but i might just
as well have been a domestic
slave for all the freedom
i have gained
i hope none of them
gets run over by
an automobile
my heart would bleed
if anything happened
to them and i found it out
but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove
them they are living
just now in an abandoned
garbage can just behind
a made over stable in greenwich
village and if it rained
into the can before i could
get back and rescue them
i am afraid the little
dears might drown
it makes me shudder just
to think of it
of course if i were a family cat
they would probably
be drowned anyhow
sometimes i think
the kinder thing would be
for me to carry the
sweet little things
over to the river
and drop them in myself
but a mother s love archy
is so unreasonable
something always prevents me
these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too
in spite of hell
well boss it will
be interesting to note
just how mehitabel
works out her present problem
a dark mystery still broods
over the manner
in which the former
family of three kittens
one day she was taking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject
we had a heavy rain
right after she spoke to me
but probably that garbage can
leaks so the kittens
have not yet
been drowned

    • archy
*on account of fearlessness and a certain assertiveness in getting his way
**The poem is written from the point of view of archy, a vers libre poet who was reincarnated as a cockroach who pals around with mehitabel, a cat on her ninth life. You should read the entire collection.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Inspired by a recent trip to Eugene

Q:  How do you distinguish between the following?

A:  Ampelography

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tuesday Tool High Impact Edition

I have to admit, I laughed the first time I saw a cordless screwdriver advertised.  For a long time, I held the belief that using a drill as a screwdriver was for sissies.  I also thought that battery-powered hand tools were a needless luxury, and kind of weak to boot.  I now file those beliefs with the follies of youth, like my juvenile dislike of strawberries and Brahms.  A perfect wild strawberry and the violin sonata No. 1 in G, Op. 78 changed my mind about berries and Brahms; here is what changed my mind about cordless screwdrivers:

The Makita LXT 18V cordless impact driver. 

Screws are, for many (but not all) applications, better than nails.  They hold tight, they don't make the two pieces you're joining dance a waltz, they make pieces of wood suck up against each other, and they are reversible.  If you have this tool, you can bury a 3" screw in about a second, and you don't need the room or strength to swing a hammer.  You can also undo the work of your predecessors, if (as in our kitchen floor) they anchored Hardy-backer to plywood with  glue and zillion kajillion screws.  You can injure yourself, but I've only Phillipsed my thumb once, and I've hammered the same appendage a lot of times. 

Oh, and things that I thought were silly?  The belt hook?  I use it constantly.  The little LED light above the trigger?  Phenomenally useful in the poorly lit nooks one finds oneself in all the time, and I've used it as a flashlight at night.  

I went out and bought this tool because I was starting to feel guilty about constantly stealing it from our general contractor.  The Real Doctor's brother may be getting one, for much the same reason.  It just rocks.