Saturday, June 26, 2010


While looking for some coffee-shop resources, I learned that a blogger known as deadprogrammer has created an intriguing project based on a simple concept (the best kind). The snapshots in his 100 Views of the Empire State Building project run the gamut from arty to poignant to enigmatic. Together, they reveal the artist's love of his city.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Take Our Jobs. Please.

I am very fond of the United Farm Workers (UFW). In our household we "thank the farmers" daily for the food we eat and the coffee we drink. We do our best to maintain direct connections to farmers, but it is not always possible, and we know that this often means they are not adequately compensated for their difficult, skilled work.

The UFW has been at the forefront of protecting farm-worker rights, and when we lived in South Texas, we had the privilege of getting some of our produce directly from the local UFW organization, which offered a weekly delivery of the harvest.

My recent human sieve article described the ways that immigration laws are designed to separate a person's labor from his or her humanity and citizenship. I mention that senate candidate Rand Paul has specifically acknowledged this way of thinking, whereas fellow "conservatives" such as Mitt Romney are careful not to admit that this is precisely what they do.

Today a friend told me of a campaign by the UFW in which workers -- including many undocumented -- are taking the fight directly to their critics. The Take Our Jobs campaign will start formally on the Stephen Colbert show on July 8. Quite simply, the campaign invites unemployed citizens and documented workers to take their jobs. A few might be willing, but I doubt they will have many takers. The rest of us might be reminded that every time we enjoy good food at a low price, we should remember one thing:


Ben Linder connections at Hofstra and University of Oregon

I am posting today from the campus of Hofstra University on Long Island, where my favorite librarian is doing some research. Just hours before leaving for this jaunt, we learned of a connection between Hofstra and the family of Benjamin Linder, for whom we have proposed to name a new cafe at Bridgewater State College.

While showing the documentary American/Sandinista to a community group Wednesday night, we noticed something we had not previously: Benjamin Linder's mother Elisabeth spoke in Hempstead, New York a few months after his death. Before making the trip, I was able to learn that her July 1987 visit to Hempstead  did indeed include the Monroe Lecture Centre at Hofstra (where I am pictured below). It also included a meeting with Salvadoran refugees at another location in the town.

Unfortunately, because the visit was during the summer, university archivists -- who searched diligently -- were not able to find any documentation of the visit, though they did very helpfully  provide some other leads that I am pursuing, in order to learn more about the visit.

Interestingly, during this search I also discovered that the University of Oregon actually has a lecture hall named for Ben Linder. Incredibly, just as I was doing that research, a supporter of the BLC project  contacted me from a visit that university to tell me he had just learned the same thing. Stay tuned; the two of us are trying to find out more about how that naming took place. What we know so far is that a commemorating event took place on the 2008 anniversary of Linder's death and that the lecture hall has two portraits, though little educational information.

Stay tuned, and please share information about any other colleges or universities with Benjamin Linder events or installations of any kind.

Nicaragua in the CIA Spinbook

Cloak-and-dagger missions aside, the primary purpose of the Central Intelligence Agency is to provide other agencies of the U.S. government with reliable information about the rest of the world. Much of this information is not classified; for example it provides maps that are reliable and definitive, in terms of boundaries and names recognized by the United States. These maps are the basis of the Perry-Castañeda Library  Map Collection at the University of Texas. For these maps and for other kinds of geographic information, the CIA is a significant employer of geographers, which is a good thing!

The CIA World Factbook is also available to the public and is a reliable source of basic demographic data and very general information about the physical geography of countries. It has, in fact, come to serve as quite a popular online almanac for many researchers, and I consult it from time to time for my own projects. Research for my coffee and tea encyclopedia project drew me to Nicaragua entry yesterday and to this critical essay, which has been brewing in my mind for years.

Some time during the second Bush Administration, the Factbook began to serve a more insidious role, as many narrative sections were rewritten to reflect a certain view of history, much as Mr. Orwell had warned us. I first noticed this in the case of Cuba, where the "Background" section was rewritten to exclude everything that had happened prior to the Castro regime, and to describe the country in terms that would ring true only to Castro's most ardent opponents. As I searched other countries, I found that the narratives for any hard-left or even left-of-center governments had been re-written, all at about the same time. I began to caution my students against accepting the resource at face value, as its contents apparently undergo both technical and political reviews.

Since the Bush Administration left office, civilian government workers have been re-empowered to do more of their own writing, and the Factbook has become more balanced. The Cuba entry continues to reflect a distinct point of view, but not as ardently as it once did. While the political slant may have softened, however, economic orthodoxy continues to prevail, as illustrated by this passage about the economy of Nicaragua:
Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, has widespread underemployment and poverty. GDP fell by almost 3% in 2009, due to decreased export demand in the US and Central American markets, lower commodity prices for key agricultural exports, and low remittance growth - remittances are equivalent to almost 15% of GDP. The US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has been in effect since April 2006 and has expanded export opportunities for many agricultural and manufactured goods. 
The segments I have highlighted in blue describe negative economic outcomes that I would ascribe to unbalanced "free" trade agreements. The segments highlighted in red represent orthodox interpretations that are not borne out by the facts presented. The claim of "expanded export opportunities" is directly contradicted by the earlier statement of "decreased export demand," which in turn is a risk created by more open trade policies.

The blaming of the victim continues:
Textiles and apparel account for nearly 60% of Nicaragua's exports, but increases in the minimum wage during the ORTEGA administration will likely erode its comparative advantage in this industry. 
As the blue text indicates, free-trade agreements have pushed many Nicaraguans into low-wage textile work (Victoria's Secret has an unmarked, 200,000-square-foot sweatshop near the capital). This is followed by a very confusing statement about international aid, which hints at a double standard regarding the standards to be met by recipients of that aid.
Nicaragua relies on international economic assistance to meet internal- and external-debt financing obligations. Foreign donors have curtailed this funding, however, in response to November 2008 electoral fraud. In early 2004, Nicaragua secured some $4.5 billion in foreign debt reduction under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, and in October 2007, the IMF approved a new poverty reduction and growth facility (PRGF) program.

American Exceptionalism

Driving along the Montauk Highway on Long Island yesterday, I was arrested by the image below, painted on the side of a deli in Brookhaven. For years, I've been trying to think of a cogent way to explain the concept of "American exceptionalism." This image illustrates it quite well. Presumably the artist and the building owner have only the best intentions, but as a citizen of both the United States and the wider world, I find the message to be quite mixed. Read contrasting views from Howard Zinn, the American Enterprise Institute, and Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia seems to be covering all the bases on this, better than any other source I could find).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Coffee Crisis

A lot of my teaching and writing about coffee has its roots in the coffee crisis, which was a world-wide collapse of coffee prices that took place about a decade ago. The International Coffee Organization (ICO) web site includes a Coffee Crisis page that includes its reports and testimony to various multilateral conferences. The first of these, presented to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, provides a good introduction to the crisis.

Over a couple of years starting in 1999, the prices paid to coffee farmers fell dramatically, even as spending on coffee in rich countries increased. Tens of billions of dollars flowed into the industry, but the 2-percent share earned by farmers actually fell by fifty percent or more. In many countries, the decline in the earning power of coffee more than offset the total value of all international aid. It is a twisted irony that one cause of the crisis has been the increased production of coffee (especially in Vietnam) as a pre-condition for such aid.

By 2001, the financial collapse of both large and small farms displaced tens of thousands of coffee farmers in Nicaragua, many of whom walked from the producing areas in the north all the way to their state and local capitals in search of some assistance -- people died and others were born during those marches. I have had the privilege of meeting some of the farmers and of visiting the stretch of the Pan-American highway that was shut down by their protests. The activities did draw international media attention and some short-term humanitarian aid.

The on-going crisis is both a humanitarian problem and a global security problem. The displacement of millions of rural workers and landowners has been a major driver of out-migration from coffeelands to cities and across international borders; it has also drawn new producers into the growing of illicit drugs of all kinds. Since most drug-producing plants are annuals while coffee is a perennial, conventional eradication programs are counterproductive in coffeelands.

Although nominal prices for Arabica coffee have returned to pre-2000 levels, in real terms producers are they are still far below the costs of production, even when fair-trade premiums are paid. The crisis is merely an extreme variant of a structural problem that economists Raúl Prebisch and Hans Singer demonstrated around 1950. In contrast to the free-trade theory of comparative advantage, the Prebisch-Singer Thesis recognizes that the value of commodities falls relative to the value of industrial products, so that countries on the periphery that rely on commodities will inevitably suffer declines in terms of trade. For coffee growers favored by geography, ingenuity, and good luck, specialty coffee provides the possibility of moving out of the commodity model.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Border: A Human Sieve

The United States is a nation of immigrants. It is also a nation of immigrant bashing. Always has been. With each economic downturn, a new generation of recent immigrants becomes the scapegoat, even as those of a generation or two ago are venerated as simply industrious. With each economic upturn, the convenience of underpaid labor helps people to forget their indignation about what -- and who -- is legal.
As a geographer who has lived in Mexico, the United States, and that "in-between" land along the border, I think constantly about the real implications of the rhetoric. This is especially true as the pendulum is swinging a bit further as the recession/depression stretches out, and because the rhetoric is hardening -- quite literally hardening into a set of massive walls that will sever the human and physical geography of the borderlands for generations or centuries to come. If the wall resembles a tomb stone, it is because it marks the death of a vibrant, little-understood place -- a couple thousand miles long but only a few miles wide.

The 1994 book Border People by my former church mate Dr. Oscar Martinez provides a thorough and enjoyable explanation of the history and human geography of this unique place. The one gap is that he does not recognize the role of "snow birds" -- tens of thousands of retired, mainly Anglo northerners who flock to the border region each winter, where they are present in abstentia, in a sort of gated archipelago. It would be very interesting to study these enclaves in the midst of the current turmoil. Our friend Tom Miller's classic On the Border is a traveler's celebration of the very linear region, as he traversed each and every available crossing at the time of his writing a generation ago.

The U.S.-Mexico border has, of course, become something very different from what it was when I lived, studied, and worked in the borderlands from 1990 to 1997. In those days, it was already the case that nowhere in the world was a greater income gap to be found across an international border. It was not idyllic -- begging, vice, and violence were facts of life. But so, too, were a wide range of ecological, cultural, and economic connections that knitted the region together. Today, demand for drugs in the U.S., corruption in governments on both sides, and a free flow of weapons from an unregulated U.S. market have combined with truly onerous economic conditions in Central America and the interior of Mexico to create a truly nightmarish landscape. It is a landscape toward which people are pressed, from as far south as Chiapas or Nicaragua, lured by the false hope of a few factory jobs on the Mexico side of the border, and many more in Houston, Omaha, and even Belmont, Massachusetts.

The results are gruesome -- children living in dangerous tunnels, women killed on the way home from work, people dying in the deserts, and assassinations so common that a New Mexico librarian has become a hero simply by trying to keep a count of them.

Because the border wall will never be an absolute barrier -- the fantasies of Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich notwithstanding -- I think another metaphor may be even more apt than the tomb stone: that of a sieve. It effectively separates the human worker from the human being. Just as Mitt Romney wants cheap labor to cut his grass but no underpaid workers to vote against him for president, so the entire power structure benefits from a series of barriers that allow for the free movement of capital and the furtive movement of labor, but not the free movement of political rights or moral entitlements.

Ron Paul's son, the radical candidate for U.S. Senate Rand Paul, admitted to precisely this in May, when he said,
“I’m not opposed to letting people come in and work and labor in our country. But I think what we should do is we shouldn’t provide an easy route to citizenship. A lot of this is about demographics. If you look at new immigrants from Mexico, they register 3-to-1 Democrat, so the Democratic Party is for easy citizenship and allowing them to vote. I think we need to address that."
The lack of outcry at this remark is a sign of just how far the pendulum has swung. Proponents of the border wall may come in many sizes, shapes, races, and income levels, but it would not be built if it were not serving the needs of the overclass -- those who really benefit from the division of labor in the world space-economy. Even executives of the regional banks in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas have not been able to stop the construction of the wall -- for they know it will harm regional business immeasurably -- because of the service it provides to global capital. (And global capital gives the rest of us enough cheap toys -- and cheap coffee -- that we tend to play along.)

I conclude this post with a passage from the opening pages of Richard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited. Thanks to my friend John McClintock for bringing it to my attention. Thurman first wrote this in the context of the oppression of African Americans in the 1940s; my friend John -- a military veteran, BSC philosophy graduate, and divinity student -- selected it in the context of a Memorial Day sermon about war; and I see it as deeply relevant to the discussion of how a wealthy, mostly Christian nation treats those who work to create its comforts, both at home and far away. I had the honor of reading this passage at the beginning of John's sermon at First Parish Church in Bridgewater.

Rev. Thurman wrote:

To those who need profound succor and strength to enable them to live in the present with dignity and creativity, Christianity often has been sterile and of little avail. The conventional Christian word is muffled, confused, and vague. Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples.

Learn more about Christian perspectives on immigration from Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

Happy Anniversary, Quabbin

On the first day of summer sixty-four years ago today, the creative destruction of the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts was complete. It could not be built today, and the legacy is mixed. The Friends of the Quabbin organization describes it as 

"One of the largest drinking-water reservoirs in the world, a remarkable feat of engineering, an 'accidental wilderness' that is home to an impressive variety of wildlife, and a place that brings bittersweet memories to many who once lived here."

Certainly modern Boston could not exist without it, as was demonstrated a few months ago when the supply was  interrupted for a few days. But four other towns were completely removed to create it -- churches, homes, parks, mills, everything. The decades-long story of that inundation and its aftermath is exquisitely told in Sean Cole's three-part radio documentary Haunting the Quabbin.

A student told me about the book Quabbin: The Accidental Wilderness, which is a beautiful and informative telling of the story. To protect the quality of the water in the Quabbin, a lot of land around it has been protected from development for generations, creating an area of high biodiversity that is legally protected. This protection became critically important to bald eagles, as it coincided with the worst effects of DDT, so the Quabbin region is essential to the eagle's recovery in New England. Closer to Bridgewater, the same thing is happening at a smaller scale around the Assowompsett Pond reservoir, which was one of my first environmental-education projects in this area. The naturalist who introduced my students and me to the eagles even suggested that the similar shapes of the two reservoirs might have influenced the eagles' nesting choices.

As residential and commercial land use encroaches in neighboring buffer zones, the Biomap project is helping to identify priority areas for protection. This part of the state's Natural Heritage program combines geography and biology to create a national model for biodiversity protection. Complementing programs that protect endangered species, this project identifies areas of high species count that are vulnerable to land-use change.

I have been going to the Quabbin region for the past ten years or so to take students to Harvard Forest as part of my course on land management. More recently, I have begun an annual tradition of doing a late-night geographic education program at Quabbin Regional Middle School in Barre -- and staying at a local inn afterwards.


Only in Massachusetts could the term "regionalization" be applied to selecting one municipal service -- such as water or schools -- and having two small towns manage that service together. But in a land where 351 municipalities have town-level responsibility for each and every such service, such economies may be considered radical -- a threat to "local control."

But as a geographer who has lived elsewhere and then got involved in local affairs in Massachusetts, I  eventually came to see important problems as expressions of the incredibly fine-grained structure of municipal services. Name any service provided at the local level, and Massachusetts is likely to have somewhere between 250 and 351 providers of that service, be it fire protection, libraries, water supply, or schools. Among other things, this contributes to the swelling of state agencies (education is the best example), because of the difficulty of maintaining contact with so many local officials.

It also means that purchasing is needlessly "lumpy" -- a county-sized area might really need five special pieces of fire, police, or water equipment, or perhaps one piece of library software. If all of those operations are separate, however, opportunities to economize are reduced. Similarly, a greater proportion of the budget can be spent on firefighters, police officers, librarians, and teachers, and somewhat less on the people who administer them. In Massachusetts, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people hold a title of school superintendent or assistant superintendent (I would be willing to bet that nobody knows the actual number).

Because I see these factors contributing directly to the ongoing struggles over resources in my own town of Bridgewater, I have encouraged state government to step up its efforts to foster regional approaches. Ideally, most services could be offered at the county level, but Massachusetts is actually unwinding its counties and four centuries of tradition might make such a big step unfeasible. My Massachusetts Regionalization page describes my small role in a state-wide discussion of some more feasible steps, including my section of a report to the governor.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Overland in WV Camper

We met our friends Homero and Lisa over 20 years ago, during a summer program in Puebla, Mexico. It was the first time I had been out of the United States for more than a day, and it changed our lives in many ways. It changed their lives even more profoundly -- bringing two young students  from two different countries together for the rest of their lives. We do not see them often, but were delighted to visit them and their beautiful, bright children during our current visit in Charleston to study tea (more on that in a later post).

All of which is preamble for this short post: Homero took on a "second wife" in the form of a 1984 VW Westphalia camping van. It is the perfect "yin" to the "yang" of their sleek, late-model VW Jettas. It is also a nostalgic reminder of our 1965 VW honeymoon mobile. (I am also reminded that some VWs were made in Homero's home town of Puebla.)

In the course of becoming a VW enthusiast -- and particularly a fan of the microbus -- Homero has discovered the many rallies, associations, and other phenomena associated with vee-dubs, including the amazing journey that is the actual point of this post: Wide-Eyed Wanderers is book by another US-Mexican couple -- Richard Ligato and Amanda Bejarano-Ligato -- who traded tranquility for adventure in the form of an old VW and a long series of roads on three continents. I have just begun to explore the pair's web site, and see that our paths have crossed in a few places. I look forward to reading more about the places they have been -- both the few that are familiar and the many that are not!

I am thankful to Lisa and Homero for their friendship, and for turning me on to this VW treasure!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Taxes and Property Values

Followers of this blog will know that I examined the geography of property taxes in some detail a few weeks ago. My interest is not merely academic -- I live in a town that is on the verge of unraveling because of its citizenry's extreme aversion to paying its own way. I am very pleased that our regional paper published a somewhat more straightforward version of this argument recently. My hope is that a combination of altruism, patriotism, and enlightened self-interest will prevail at the polls on June 19!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Keeping up with the BP damage

Thanks to my friend and fellow geographer Susan for sending me the link to this interactive map of the unfolding damage in the Gulf. Be sure to use the slider above each map to show how distributions have changed day by day.

BP is to blame for this, of course, but in a sense we are all responsible. All but the most impoverished humans seem determined to get every drop of oil out of the earth's crust -- no matter where it is -- before we get serious about alternatives.

All Aboard!

Trains and ships are big and use a lot of resources. But compared to any other form of long-distance transportation, they move freight and people farther with lower environmental impact. We might never decide to do anything about climate change, but we will have no choice but to do something about diminishing oil stocks (having reached peak production about a decade ago). For our homes and offices, we will be using a lot more wind and solar power, but for transportation, a return to the era of train and ship travel is in order.

The Man in Seat 61, a UK-based website, is here to help with the transition. Throughout the world -- even in the under-served United States, the site provides guidance and links to trains and ships to make good time. (As Pirsig says, it all depends on where you put the emphasis: in this case, GOOD time.)

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride:

Geography of Saturn

The car, not the planet. Read my homage to my favorite car company (the only one I every truly loved) and how it relates to the world space-economy.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Cliffwalk -- the world in a nutshell

The Newport Buzz

On an unusually warm day in March, Pam and I enjoyed a wonderful morning in Newport. It has taken a while to post this, because this short outing led to a long period of reflection.

Our outing included a nice breakfast place with atmosphere, great service, and good food, but sub-par coffee (even our delightful waitress acknowledged this). We also visited an old-school hardware store, where we got a few door-related necessities and excellent service of the kind that was fairly common in the days before WalMart leveled the retail landscape. Then we went on to our main purpose: the Cliff Walk. We enjoyed the walk very much, and it led to a lot of thinking about geography, mostly human. The observations below -- which have been brewing for a couple of months of contemplation and conversation -- are the result.

First, a bit of introduction is in order. Not too long after we moved to Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 1997, we heard about Belcourt Castle -- an odd sort of mansion that had been the subject of even odder familial disputes amongst owners and heirs. Intrigued by an article in the Boston Globe, we went on a tour. We got a sense that this would be the most unusual of many mansion tours available in the neighborhood, which had been the summer playground of the super-rich in an earlier time. Here "playground" is meant literally, as we were shown a room in which the table is said to have been covered with sand, and each dinner guest given a pail and shovel with which to search for buried jewels. I had heard this as an elementary school student back in Virginia, and now I was able to visit the very place where it happened. Or at least where a tour guide will say it happened!

Some day we might tour one of the more "regular" mansions, but as we approached the Belcourt castle, we learned that we could view many of the most impressive mansions from a public way that crosses high above the ocean along the rear of the properties along Bellevue Avenue. (Later we would tour a real castle in Transylvania, but that is another story.) Since then, we've made our way there once or twice a year to follow that path, marveling at the beauty of these homes with mixed feelings. We admire good architecture (and most of these houses are exquisite), but not the extreme concentration of wealth they represent.

View Larger Map

We drive home along Ocean Avenue, again a beautiful drive. Many of the houses here -- and even a few at the southern end of Bellevue -- are much newer.

I think of the two streets this way:

   Bellevue Avenue = The Rich Got Richer
   Ocean Avenue = The Rich Are Getting Richer

All of this boils down to one simple question I asked my friends: "Where did these people get all this money?" One friend answered, "They earned it the old fashioned way, getting poor people to work for it." Another friend -- who makes fine furniture -- points out that the conspicuous consumption of the overly wealthy is an important economic engine, creating employment for artisans and tradespeople.

Still, I find the "robber barons" of the current difficult to accept. I also wonder if the heirs of the new Ocean Avenue mansions will eventually abandon the properties, as most of those along Bellevue have done. Many of the most impressive mansions along Bellevue Avenue are managed by The Preservation Society of Newport County, a non-profit organization that operates much like a museum. During my first year teaching environmental geography in Massachusetts, I was quite impressed with the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, Trudy Coxe. Like many other Bay Staters, I was surprised and concerned to learn that she would be moving -- in 1998 -- to head the Newport mansion organization, but her successor (and his successors) have done well, since environmental protection has remained a relatively high priority across the political spectrum in Massachusetts. In moving to the Preservation Society, she declared her intention to bridge the often tense divide between historic preservationists and environmentalists, two groups she felt should work more together.

Back to the present: the day after we enjoyed a  our walk this March, I learned from my local paper that the richest person in the world is Carlos Slim of Mexico. As described in the new book Murder City, Mexico is a country undergoing a rapid and dangerous process of wealth concentration. In Monterey (near my old home in South Texas), I've learned, some houses are so large that the walls surrounding them are patrolled by armed guards -- driving Jeeps! I learned this from a conservative Cuban exile who found the degree of wealth concentration there quite alarming. He was no fan of socialist revolutions, and he clearly understands what causes them.

The process of wealth being concentrated in ever-fewer hands, by the way, is known as Brazilianization. Brazil continues to be among a handful of countries in which a very few are extremely rich, very many are extremely poor, and the middle class (professors, for example) is small and struggling. This is problematic for the poor, of course, but it is not good even for the rich, who suffer poorer health and more stress than the rich in places that are somewhat more egalitarian. In fact, although Brazil remains among the most imbalanced countries in the world, it is heading in the right direction. Brazil is now ranked number 10 and the United States number 42, but Brazil's wealth is becoming less concentrated, while years of privatization and deregulation are leading the United States to become more so. It is worth noting that Brazil is doing this even as its overall economy is quite robust -- it entered the recent worldwide recession after the United States, and began to emerge from it ahead of most of the rest of the world.

If the Cliff Walk in Newport is a step back in time historically speaking, geologically speaking, it is a step WAY back: most of the materials near the surface in southeastern Massachusetts and much of Rhode Island are glacial deposits that are less than 20,000 years old, set down when a mile of ice covered this area. And some deposits are even newer, having been transported by wind and wave even more recently. But much of Newport -- including the cliffs -- is on the order of 600,000,000 years old, when we could have walked to Europe from Newport.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Smoke in the sky

On Memorial Day, residents of Southeastern Massachusetts had a strong reminder of the variety of ways in which we are connected to other places. In this case, a shift in the wind meant that I learned of fires in Quebec -- several hundred miles away -- from smoke that seemed to be coming from my neighbor's yard.

The damage, health effects, and inconvenience were of course greatest in Quebec itself, where nearly 50 fires burned, at least eight of them out of control. But the smoke was visible and even irritating as far south as Cape Cod.

I have not been able to discern the cause of this particular outbreak, though I heard lightning cited as a proximate cause. Lightning-strike fires are not always "natural," however, as a history of successful fire management creates, ironically, fire-prone conditions in many forests.