Mike Williams – LikeTheDew.com http://likethedew.com A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Mon, 19 Nov 2018 13:02:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 http://likethedew.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/cropped-DewLogoSquare825-32x32.png Mike Williams – LikeTheDew.com http://likethedew.com 32 32 Dogs, Kids and the Superman Leap http://likethedew.com/2011/12/15/dogs-kids-and-the-superman-leap/ http://likethedew.com/2011/12/15/dogs-kids-and-the-superman-leap/#comments Thu, 15 Dec 2011 16:20:04 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=34114 It comes unexpectedly, escalating from a mild trot on an otherwise ho-hum walk into a sudden, full-tilt explosion, and at the end, a soaring leap that seems to have no limits. They might be superheroes, our dogs, bounding across the Grand Canyon, forelegs extended, bodies uncoiling, eyes flashing, fur riffling, ears flapping in the slipstream.

Never mind that Chloe, our 40-pound yellow mix of something or other, is typically hurdling nothing more than a fallen tree or a low rock outcrop impeding one of our routine walks through the woods. Or that for Fred, all 11 pounds of pure Maltese macho, the bottomless chasm he’s leaping is merely the boundary where the hardwood floor ends and the edge of the carpet begins.


Our Superdogs, Fred and ChloeIt comes unexpectedly, escalating from a mild trot on an otherwise ho-hum walk into a sudden, full-tilt explosion, and at the end, a soaring leap that seems to have no limits. They might be superheroes, our dogs, bounding across the Grand Canyon, forelegs extended, bodies uncoiling, eyes flashing, fur riffling, ears flapping in the slipstream.

Never mind that Chloe, our 40-pound yellow mix of something or other, is typically hurdling nothing more than a fallen tree or a low rock outcrop impeding one of our routine walks through the woods. Or that for Fred, all 11 pounds of pure Maltese macho, the bottomless chasm he’s leaping is merely the boundary where the hardwood floor ends and the edge of the carpet begins.

They are flying with abandon, completely in the moment, and it’s a wonderful thing to see. I love to watch it – stride, stride, stride, gathering speed, and then that final glorious leap, a full-on moment of doggy bliss.

It reminds me of small children as they engage in feats of astounding, imagined heroism in some fantasy world they’ve dreamed up.

Chloe runningAs a boy I was treated to that feeling by a rambunctious friend, Marty. We grew up on my grandfather’s 40-acre golf course, which for us was a delightful, giant playground filled with creeks, hills, big oak trees and a thick copse of woods, the golfers a minor inconvenience to our schemes. We played army and tag and football and all the other games that kids enjoyed.

But Marty had an active imagination, and I remember taking off a few times in the late-evening gloom across those rolling hills, our minds fired with images from the 1968 Winter Olympics and France’s Jean Claude Killy, who dominated the downhill ski competition that year. We, of course, were picturing ourselves as downhill ski competitors, matching the matchless Killy gate-for-gate.

I’m sure we looked pretty stupid, but thankfully it was probably only in that completely un-self-conscious way that is an unrecognized gift of childhood. Downhill racers we were not: we had golf clubs turned upside down for ski poles, one in each hand, but we still shushed and leaped our way over moguls, Marty barking the commentary. The crescendo came when we went tearing down a black-diamond run at top speed, completely unfazed by the fact that instead of snow on a precipitous alpine pitch it was the winter-brown grass of my Paw-Paw’s Number Nine fairway, a laughably gentle slope that petered out by the creek.

Most of us, when we grow up, lose that abandon, that ability to lose ourselves in the moment. We get glimpses of it if we pay attention to children engrossed in play, and we can glimpse it with pets, too.

Fred in fieldI have the luck of that on occasion. On a recent morning as we trudged up the abandoned logging road from the creek on one of our routine early strolls, Chloe’s gentle amble ramped up instantly into a full-bore sprint. Her ears perked up and her strides widened as she gathered pace. Just as she topped the rise above me, she gathered herself and unfurled in a huge, glorious leap, her Superman moment, arcing five feet through the air, only to land at a complete dead stop, her legs springing like shock absorbers.

I wonder what picture filled her mind at that moment. Likely something I might find vaguely distasteful – a pouncing kill on some helpless bunny or squirrel. Distasteful, but a total surrender to instinct and in its own way, a thing of beauty.

But I can almost imagine she saw herself as Rin Tin Tin, flying to the rescue of some imperiled toddler, much like small boys who once swooped down the easy slopes of an Alabama golf course, imaging they were heroes in the Winter Olympics.

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Asheville Deja Vu http://likethedew.com/2011/08/25/asheville-deja-vu/ http://likethedew.com/2011/08/25/asheville-deja-vu/#comments Thu, 25 Aug 2011 13:53:31 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=29491 The young man wore ragged clothes, beat-up shoes and a scruffy growth of more facial hair than I’ve seen in a long time. He was trudging up Lexington Avenue, a torn rucksack over one shoulder and a battered black guitar case over the other. This small kit seemed likely to be his current sum of belongings in the world. He paused at the corner, looked up at a street sign and pondered which way to go. I was just passing, driving a load of our furniture, books, electronics, linens, towels and endless kitchen and bath gear, bound for our new apartment near my wife’s new job and office.

The sight of him almost sent me off the road.


The young man wore ragged clothes, beat-up shoes and a scruffy growth of more facial hair than I’ve seen in a long time. He was trudging up Lexington Avenue, a torn rucksack over one shoulder and a battered black guitar case over the other. This small kit seemed likely to be his current sum of belongings in the world. He paused at the corner, looked up at a street sign and pondered which way to go. I was just passing, driving a load of our furniture, books, electronics, linens, towels and endless kitchen and bath gear, bound for our new apartment near my wife’s new job and office.

Asheville and the rear view mirrorThe sight of him almost sent me off the road.

Thirty-five years ago I was doing almost the same thing, wandering with a head full of unformed schemes and dreams, the future equal parts uncertainty and boundless possibility, the world an open book and life an adventure still unfolding.

Maybe we spend our lives in tight, largely unrecognized circles, treading paths guided by vague hints and notions, or, alternatively, by some deeply-hidden compass we most often never realize is at work. Whatever the case, somehow at 56 I’ve found myself stepping into a time warp, exiting a career and life I loved but which in some ways didn’t meet my expectations, and popping out in a city that seems fresh with the vibrancy and questioning I once was deeply tuned to.

I graduated from high school and started college in 1973. My time was shaped by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the protests of the 1960s. I was a few years too young to experience the full force of those events, but their power still lingered and informed the years when I became my own person.  Part of me didn’t trust anyone over 30, and certainly didn’t trust our government, believing instead in some vague idea of relying on simplicity, common sense and people’s better natures. Money and possessions were suspect, along with traditional careers, and life was supposed to be about discovering that true inner compass, no matter how deeply hidden, and then following it. It’s a caricature, for sure, but I’ll admit it: I searched for mine in a VW bus with characters from a Grateful Dead album cover painted on the side.

It’s probably no surprise that I floundered around. A lot. Eventually times changed and so did I; I needed a job, a more defined purpose, even a career, and managed to stumble into one – newspaper journalism – that seemed to suit me. I tried not to give up my ideals, no matter how vague they were, and tried to stay in touch with that inner compass. I did well enough in my field  to be comfortable, and had a lot of fun, too. But my deep questioning was for the most part silenced, or at least slid beneath the necessity of meeting daily challenges. The world and my future weren’t limitless any longer, but they weren’t bad.

Stepping into Asheville, though, seems like turning back the clock and stepping back into a bit of who I once was, or at least climbing onto a platform that gives a nice view of a scene I once knew well but thought had largely faded from this country. The place is filled with young drifters, artists and musicians, activists and non-conformists, and, equally genuine, a far larger majority of more “normal” people. Having once driven a VW bus, I like the vibe. There are head shops and used-clothing boutiques, galleries high-brow and low, yoga and meditation centers, community groups backing every conceivable cause, ideology and whimsy, bars with a stunning variety of live music, eclectic bookshops and lofts where the lights shine late at night and young folks sipping wine wander in deep conversation or study their next move on some work of art in wood, paint, words, melody or their own unique medium. It feels like the kind of place where a young poet might share a house on a street like Montague and someday sing or write about it in meaningful ways. It seems like the kind of place where searching for an inner compass is not considered indulgent or useless, but even sort of the point.

To be sure, Asheville is in some ways a parody, almost so hip, funky and alternative that it has its own built-in conformity. And maybe some of its wandering non-conformists are hopelessly naïve.

I don’t know if I grew up and left all that dreaming behind, and I don’t know if it’s a good thing I did. Perhaps seeing a young hippie wandering up the street might not seem so evocative at 56 if I was still in his shoes and hadn’t purchased at least a modicum of material security with years  spent on the corporate treadmill.

But I do know I really liked seeing him. I really liked hearing the faint echoes of a beat I once found vibrating all around me and deep inside, one that is still largely drowned out by our instant, frantic culture.

It struck me later that as he looked up at that street sign, that young man did not do what it seems 95 percent of the rest of us would do these days: whip out a smart phone to call somebody (and what? Validate the moment?). He didn’t consult a far-off computer to tell him where he was or where to go. He was alone, and I’m pretty sure that was part of his purpose. It meant he was likely to learn something, probably about himself.


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My New Hero http://likethedew.com/2011/06/21/my-new-hero/ http://likethedew.com/2011/06/21/my-new-hero/#comments Tue, 21 Jun 2011 06:07:17 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=26414 If you aren’t a golf fan, you’ll probably find this as boring as watching the game on TV. If you are a fan, though, you may, like me, find Rory McIlroy a refreshing spring breeze in a sport that’s been suffering through a long bout of summer doldrums.

I understand that many people think golf is a game for the rich or for pansies. My tri-athlete brother-in-law even scoffs at the notion of calling it a sport, I guess because there are plenty of unfit-looking guys who are good at it and there is no tooth-grinding pain involved, at least not typically.

I got hooked at a young age by family connections. My father was a club pro at our jerry-built, 9-hole course, sculpted from my grandfather’s farm during the Great Depression on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Paw-Paw and his crew apparently did not use gigantic earth-movers to transform the 40 acres of rolling farm fields into fairways. The crop rows were still visible in some of our fairways, and for us kids, bouncing over those furrows in the new-fangled electric carts was even more fun than playing the game.


If you aren’t a golf fan, you’ll probably find this as boring as watching the game on TV. If you are a fan, though, you may, like me, find Rory McIlroy a refreshing spring breeze in a sport that’s been suffering through a long bout of summer doldrums.

Rory McIlroy (Photo by Ed McDonald/Wikimedia Commons)

I understand that many people think golf is a game for the rich or for pansies. My tri-athlete brother-in-law even scoffs at the notion of calling it a sport, I guess because there are plenty of unfit-looking guys who are good at it and there is no tooth-grinding pain involved, at least not typically.

I got hooked at a young age by family connections. My father was a club pro at our jerry-built, 9-hole course, sculpted from my grandfather’s farm during the Great Depression on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Paw-Paw and his crew apparently did not use gigantic earth-movers to transform the 40 acres of rolling farm fields into fairways. The crop rows were still visible in some of our fairways, and for us kids, bouncing over those furrows in the new-fangled electric carts was even more fun than playing the game.

Golf may be associated with rich and exclusive country clubs, but such was not the case at our humble track. The doctors and lawyers belonged to the other clubs in town. Many of our members worked at the BF Goodrich plant or the Gulf States paper mill, hourly guys, so we never put on any airs.

I grew up watching the tournaments on TV because it was part of the family business. My uncle Harold Williams actually played the professional tour in the 1950s, back when it was a far-less glamorous, lucrative franchise. Harold, a large man who constantly chomped smelly cigars and went by the nickname of “Big Blue,” could drive the ball a mile, and, according to family legend, held the world record for driving distance for a time, until it was broken by a young upstart named Jack Nicklaus.

I was too young to care about the nuts-and-bolts of Big Blue’s experience on the tour, but recall hearing a few stories about long hours of driving between tournaments and late-night gin rummy games at cheap motels with his pals, the Herbert brothers from Louisiana. Harold never managed to win a PGA tournament, and I’m not sure he played the tour for more than a few years or even made expenses. But I do know, thanks to a yellowed newspaper clipping, that in the year I was born, 1955, he led the U.S. Open after the second round. The weakness in his game was putting, though, and he didn’t win; his career is not even a footnote in the annals of golf history. But for anybody who knows anything about the game, holding the lead for even one day at a U.S. Open is no small achievement.

While my brother-in-law may be right that golf does not demand tremendous endurance or even great physical strength, it is a game of exacting physical skill. You must train your muscles to move in a certain way, and then repeat that motion again and again, a nearly impossible task, as most golfers learn. Even the slightest variation can send the ball careening left or right into a hazard or the rough. It is a game of patience and humility, and if you have little of either, it probably isn’t the sport for you.

It is also a game of mental pressure that is probably unequalled in sport. Take your years of practice at perfecting that swing, then set yourself on a stage with 10,000 people surrounding you, every eye glued to you, and add in the weight of all your lifelong hopes and dreams riding on your performance. Now make that perfect swing, again and again, with long bouts of nerve-wracking waiting in between those swings. Meanwhile, train your mind to lock out even the slightest hint of self-consciousness, doubt or anxiety.

The television commentators constantly harp about the “pressure” facing pro golfers, wondering whether the new-kid phenom so highly touted in the press has what it takes to stand in the cauldron of leading a tournament on Sunday, when it all comes down to the finish. They aren’t making this up, as any Joe Hacker who has ever teed off on Number One at the local club tournament in front of a crowd of 10 or 20 on-lookers can tell you. Suddenly the simple act of hitting the ball doesn’t seem so easy. Your mouth gets dry, your arms stiff, your palms sweaty, and it seems like there’s a chorus in your head, waiting to cackle when you duff it into the lake.

The pressure at a run-of-the-mill PGA Tour event is magnitudes greater. But multiply that pressure by 100 and you get a glimpse of what the players feel at one of the four yearly “Majors,” the most prestigious titles that are the be-all, end-all of the sport.

That pressure is what makes Rory McIlroy’s domination of the U.S. Open so amazing. Just six weeks earlier he had gone into Sunday at the year’s first major, The Masters, leading by four strokes, a very healthy lead in golf. He kept that lead through nine holes of solid play, but then suddenly crumbled. He hit a terrible drive on Number 10, followed by several more excruciating goofs and a fat triple-bogey on his scorecard. In an instant, all that pressure, the thousands of fans surrounding him, the millions watching on TV, rose up like a monster and swallowed him whole, snuffing out his confidence and leading to a complete meltdown. It was painful to watch the young man suffer: a closing round of 80, an embarrassingly high score at the pro level, coupled with the ignominy of having collapsed when the coveted major trophy was inches from his grasp.

In golf such a collapse has been known to decimate careers, a blow so severe that a professional never recovers, never contends again at a major, perhaps never even wins another tournament. His head forever scrambled, he simply can’t handle it.

Rory McIlroy was gracious after his loss at the Masters, saying he would learn valuable lessons. In Hollywood-script fashion, he proved it at the very next major, the venerable U.S. Open, carving out stunning scores on a tough course. He blew away the field by 8 strokes, set the mark for the lowest Open score in history, became the youngest winner in nearly 100 years, and, perhaps most importantly, silenced his inner demons.

Even more wonderful for us golf fans, he was as gracious in victory as he had been six weeks earlier in defeat. He exhibited an aw-shucks demeanor and had candid answers to questions about his abilities and the inevitable comparisons with Tiger Woods, although he also flashed a bit of the fire and ambition that every great champion must have if he is to contend.

I was a big fan of Tiger Woods. I loved seeing a young black man dominate a sport that in my youth was reserved almost exclusively for whites by the backwards ways of my beloved South. I was awed at his skill, his mental toughness and the miraculous shots he pulled off.

But in recent years I’d grown a bit peeved at Tiger’s antics on the course. I didn’t like the way he slammed his club into the ground and muttered curses when he hit wayward shots. He had lost any hint of graciousness and seemed to have developed an arrogance. While that was understandable due to his tremendous achievements, it was grating.

I was sad to see his personal travails and to learn of his duplicitous private life. I still admire his golfing triumphs, though, and I’d still like to see him make a come-back and continue his run at Nicklaus’ record of 18 major victories. But for me, the shine has definitely come off the Tiger mystique.

So Rory McIlroy is now my new main man. I’m awed by his talent, relish his mastery of the mental pressure, and look forward to a pleasant decade or two of following his career. But most of all I like the fact that he seems genuinely gracious, even humble, aware that golf is, in the end, just a game, one he is lucky and hard-working enough to be very good at playing.

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The Pleasures of Working with Your Hands http://likethedew.com/2011/04/26/the-pleasures-of-working-with-your-hands/ http://likethedew.com/2011/04/26/the-pleasures-of-working-with-your-hands/#comments Tue, 26 Apr 2011 22:53:48 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=22865 I don’t know why I like working with my hands. It doesn’t seem to run in my family, a fact that leaves me puzzled. If I didn’t inherit a disposition for it and didn’t get it from hanging around my father’s or my grandfather’s woodshop, just exactly where did it come from?

I guess I’ll never know, making it one of life’s savory mysteries, the kind we can only shake our heads at, marveling at the unexpected pleasures we sometimes stumble across.

My own path to the woodshop has been a stumbling one. I took 7th grade shop class, a nine-week introduction during which I managed to produce one of the ugliest gun racks ever built ...


I don’t know why I like working with my hands. It doesn’t seem to run in my family, a fact that leaves me puzzled. If I didn’t inherit a disposition for it and didn’t get it from hanging around my father’s or my grandfather’s woodshop, just exactly where did it come from?

I guess I’ll never know, making it one of life’s savory mysteries, the kind we can only shake our heads at, marveling at the unexpected pleasures we sometimes stumble across.

My own path to the woodshop has been a stumbling one. I took 7th grade shop class, a nine-week introduction during which I managed to produce one of the ugliest gun racks ever built. About all I remember doing is the final stage of gluing the green felt into the curved cutouts that were to hold the guns. I have seen elegant gun racks, but this was not one of them. My curves did manage to curve, and even did so without too much wavering, but they had no panache. And why I picked a gun rack to build is another of life’s mysteries: nobody in my family hunted much, especially me after the very first day I went out with my brand new Daisy BB air rifle, took aim at a hapless bird on a limb and shot it dead on the spot. That prompted a tearful burial service complete with a tiny wooden cross, followed by weeks of guilt and a lifelong aversion to guns and hunting.

If there is some clue to the mystery of why I enjoy building things, it may be that as a boy I was lucky enough to be around a few people who were good with their hands. Some I only watched, but others I actually worked alongside. Seeing their competence, even wizardry, with tools and machines tools must be what hooked me.

The first of these mentors was Jimmy Lee, who tended the equipment at the family business. Jimmy Lee was a tall, bony, largely silent black man with little education from his boyhood in 1940s segregated Alabama. Despite his lack of book-learning, he possessed a priceless store of common sense and practical skill that did a lot to keep my grandfather’s farm – converted into a quirky nine-hole golf course during the Depression – in operation. His long fingers could ease their way into the tightest places on our 1940 Ford tractor, and he seemed to have an intuitive feel for how any machine worked.

What I learned most from Jimmy Lee was patience. He never lost his temper. A bolt head might snap off, a screw thread in an engine block might strip, but he never showed a trace of frustration. Later when I read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” I immediately thought of Jimmy Lee. It made perfect sense to me that a largely uneducated black man who grew up in the segregated South and probably knew little, if anything, of Buddhism would be a living embodiment of its principles.

Another mentor was old Mr. Bailey, although he was not by any stretch Zen-like. After spending 40 years building tires at break-neck speed at the BF Goodrich plant in town, Mr. Bailey approached his carpentry at the same pace. I worked for him and his son for a time after college, and may have learned as much about how not to do things as I learned about how to do them. But while Mr. Bailey lacked Jimmy Lee’s patience, there was still much to be admired. I remember him barking out instructions in his backyard shop one morning when he had an order from a lady for kitchen cabinets: “Cut me a sheet of plywood 36 inches by 23-and-a-quarter.” That was it. Mr. Bailey had no plans, no drawing, nothing but a picture in his head and years of experience to go on. By late afternoon that lady had the first of her cabinets, and it didn’t look half-bad, even though I was stunned we built it without ever drawing up a plan.

Another teacher was Ted, a hippie furniture builder who created elegant cabinets with lines that seemed Japanese to me, although I knew nothing about design. Like Jimmy Lee, Ted seemed to gather something deep, even spiritual, from his work. He and his wife were building a timber-framed home in the woods, and I was the helper, spending most of my days smoothing giant beams with a hand-plane and hauling rock for the foundation. But I got to watch while Ted did complicated lay-outs using a square, a rule and a very sharp knife, marking out the mortise-and-tenon joinery, which he then precisely cut with a variety of saws and chisels.

Once again, the main lesson was patience. With 400-pound beams, there was no way to fully test his work until we hoisted the pieces into place with ropes tied high in a nearby tree. The joints fit perfectly. Ted had even calculated – and accounted for – the shrinkage that would occur as the fresh-cut oak timbers dried out slowly over the coming months. I left that job shaking my head in amazement.

My brief apprenticeships to these talented craftsmen ended in my 20s, and I spent most of the next 30 years building sentences at newspapers. I enjoyed that a lot, but eventually the yen to build something useful with my hands hit again, and at some point I bought a small table saw and started poking around in the garage.

To my surprise, I found building furniture a bit like building sentences: it’s all got to stick together, one part fitting to the next. If it doesn’t, it’s readily apparent: messy, inelegant, missing a simple coherence and clarity, a functional beauty. Both activities require a lot of contemplation over how things are going to come together, but they also take a willingness to let go, to not over-think, to just trust your instincts.

The pieces I build now often turn out only a shade better than that long-ago gun rack I made in 7th grade shop class. But the satisfaction of building them is deep and sustaining. The slow, step-by-step process of thinking through a design, of figuring out how to join the parts and in what order, the discipline of remaining patient when mistakes are made or unforeseen problems crop up –  all are valuable lessons I often find helpful in other parts of my life.

I hear shop class has been eliminated in most of our schools now, a relic, I guess, in our frenetic culture and economy that demand speed, convenience and bargain-basement prices. I look around at today’s kids, many of them perpetually bent over some tiny electronic device, and wonder where we’re going. They make computer-driven woodworking machines now, so I guess the days of hand-built satisfaction may largely disappear. If it survives, it will be thanks to a few stubborn coots seeking something more than just the end product.

I find that a shame.

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The Saddest Place Just Got Sadder http://likethedew.com/2010/01/13/the-saddest-place-just-got-sadder/ http://likethedew.com/2010/01/13/the-saddest-place-just-got-sadder/#comments Thu, 14 Jan 2010 00:12:36 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=7441 Haiti is the most heart-rending place I have ever seen. Yesterday’s major earthquake, centered just 10 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince, means the misery, indignity, hunger and suffering that the vast majority of Haiti’s 9 million residents were already enduring will become even more acute. Which is hard to imagine. If you are already starving and living in a cardboard shack without power, clean water or proper sanitation, it would be worse to have that cardboard shack flattened. But it will be infinitely worse if the slender thread of survival you were clinging to – perhaps gathering scraps of rotted produce somehow overlooked as vendors pack up at dusk in one of the city’s teeming open-air markets – is suddenly broken because that market no longer exists...


Haiti is the most heart-rending place I have ever seen. Tuesday’s major earthquake, centered just 10 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince, means the misery, indignity, hunger and suffering that the vast majority of Haiti’s 9 million residents were already enduring will become even more acute. Which is hard to imagine. If you are already starving and living in a cardboard shack without power, clean water or proper sanitation, it would be worse to have that cardboard shack flattened. But it will be infinitely worse if the slender thread of survival you were clinging to – perhaps gathering scraps of rotted produce somehow overlooked as vendors pack up at dusk in one of the city’s teeming open-air markets – is suddenly broken because that market no longer exists.

Haiti is a place of extremes that test the limits of credulity. Now, unbelievably, those extremes will be pushed further.

Even before this latest disaster, the filth, the degradation, the desperate struggle to survive overwhelmed many visitors the minute they drove out of the airport compound in Haiti. In Cite Soleil, the sprawling slum ringing the gritty harbor in Port-au-Prince, the poor build their hovels from garbage amidst huge mounds of more stinking garbage. Shipping pallets, cardboard boxes, rusted, crumpled sheets of metal, palm fronds, torn plastic sheeting, you name it, are tacked or wired or simply propped together to make the most ragtag shelters you can imagine. The slum itself is a giant garbage dump, flat, hot, reeking from streams of sickly blue water brimming with human waste that wind their way among the shacks. Half-naked children with distended bellies and vacant stares stumble in the filth, while adults dressed in dirty rags shuffle aimlessly in a daze, whiling away their days bereft of even the merest sliver of hope that anything might ever change, much less improve.

Pigs root in heaps of garbage next to major thoroughfares in the capital. As jarring as that sight is, it becomes routine after a number of visits, yet Haiti’s capacity to surprise you with the depths of its misery is boundless. One day during a round of the nation’s seemingly endless bouts of political violence, I saw one of those pigs bent stoutly to his meal, only to recoil when I realized the animal was feeding on a human corpse. Nobody had collected that body, an apparent victim of the gang warfare between the political factions. The pedestrians crowding the route simply detoured around it, their heads never turning to a sight that in most other countries would draw stunned flocks of the perversely curious. They didn’t look because they knew that doing so might bring even more trouble into their lives. Haitians routinely endure things we cannot imagine.

One stereotypical story that nearly every visiting correspondent eventually wrote sums it up: Haiti is so desperate a place that people actually eat dirt. I had heard the tale for years and finally one day driving down Port-au-Prince’s impossibly crowded streets saw it: a woman carrying a tattered plastic disc, perhaps the dirty lid to a 5-gallon paint jug, mounded with neatly stacked dirt cookies. She hoisted that makeshift tray over her head and walked with dignity through the crowd, as if she were a waitress at some café trundling out the dessert offerings for a table of overstuffed diners marveling over the exquisite enjoyment of their high-priced meal.

In Haiti, some people eat dirt, and often even that isn’t enough to keep them alive. The next time you drop a buck and a half into a vending machine for your afternoon infusion of caffeine and cola, try to imagine that such an afterthought of a purchase represents the entire sum of money you will have to survive for the day. If you are lucky. And maybe you must feed three sick, screaming babies and an elderly relative on that buck-and-a-half, too.

We waste or throw away more than most Haitians ever see in months, even years of desperate living. The price I just paid for a sack of dog food at the grocery for our pets would feed a Haitian family for weeks.

Despite its woes, though, Haiti gets under the skin of many visitors. The need is so great, the history of turmoil, deceit, dictatorships, political pillage and murder so twisted and obscure that it boggles the mind. And then you meet a man scrambling to feed his family, and somehow doing it, or a poor vendor squatting among sacks of charcoal who is somehow sunny and positive, or a mother bargaining with determination you could never match to buy a bag of rice for her hungry children, and you marvel at the dignity many Haitians summon in the midst of such suffering. You want to empty your pockets, volunteer to build clinics or schools or dig wells, and you come away with a sense of admiration for these tough people that somehow surpasses the pity, desperation and hopelessness.

Now the people of Haiti, that wrecked, unluckiest of nations, are going to suffer even more. I cannot tell you which charity would put your donation to the best, most immediate use to relieve some of the suffering. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health is a good one, profiled superbly by Tracy Kidder in his book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” But the Red Cross, Food for the Poor, Catholic Relief Services or any reputable charity that works there will probably be able to take some tiny sum that you will never miss in the unbridled affluence of our lives and put it to good use.

Mike Williams covered Haiti from 2000 to 2009 as Caribbean Correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

Places to contact to offer help and donations.

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Obama’s Afghan Choice: Handcuffed by Bush’s Blunders http://likethedew.com/2009/12/10/obama%e2%80%99s-afghan-choice-handcuffed-by-bush%e2%80%99s-blunders/ http://likethedew.com/2009/12/10/obama%e2%80%99s-afghan-choice-handcuffed-by-bush%e2%80%99s-blunders/#comments Fri, 11 Dec 2009 00:37:30 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=7049 The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has issued a report detailing the incredible bungling at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December of 2001. It concludes that Osama bin Laden was there, hiding in the mountains, and America’s leaders – George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – ignored vigorous requests for reinforcements from the handful of American Special Forces operatives on the ground. Had those reinforcements been sent, bin Laden and the top al Qaeda leadership very likely would’ve been killed or captured, according to Peter Bergen, CNN’s terrorism analyst.

That, of course, is speculation, but Bergen is one of the few – possibly the only – Western journalist who ever managed to interview bin Laden. Common sense and my own experience covering the battle at Tora Bora for Cox Newspapers tells me he’s probably right. But we’ll never know.


ToraBoraThe Senate Foreign Relations Committee has issued a report detailing the incredible bungling at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December of 2001. It concludes that Osama bin Laden was there, hiding in the mountains, and America’s leaders – George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld – ignored vigorous requests for reinforcements from the handful of American Special Forces operatives on the ground. Had those reinforcements been sent, bin Laden and the top al Qaeda leadership very likely would’ve been killed or captured, according to Peter Bergen, CNN’s terrorism analyst.

That, of course, is speculation, but Bergen is one of the few – possibly the only – Western journalist who ever managed to interview bin Laden. Common sense and my own experience covering the battle at Tora Bora for Cox Newspapers tells me he’s probably right.

But we’ll never know. Instead, Bush refused to send a significant force of our own troops and somehow decided that the best way to go after the world’s biggest terrorist was to rely primarily on Afghan warlords. These feudal-style local “big men” dispatched Afghan peasants clad in plastic sandals with rusty weapons as the main ground troops in our attack. While the Afghan irregulars have a well-deserved reputation for ferocity and toughness, they have also been notorious, for centuries, for abruptly shifting their loyalties. Too bad nobody in the Bush administration bothered to read up a bit.

It wasn’t hard for me to find that out. One day at Tora Bora I interviewed an Afghan tank commander and immediately got a bad feeling about our chances of nabbing bin Laden. The bearded, gruff guy told me he had been a loyal Taliban soldier for more than a decade, but had just switched sides two weeks previously when the American operation began. Having guys like him as a backup, a reserve force, or simply buying them off to keep them from fighting against us would’ve been one thing. Unfortunately our leaders decided on a much larger role for them. When rumors started flying that bin Laden was trying to escape out the “back door” through the mountain passes into Pakistan, a force of these men was dispatched to cut him off, we were told. Whether that happened, whether they came across the Saudi terrorist and let him go, is anybody’s guess. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Like many of my colleagues at Tora Bora, I kept asking: “Where’s Rambo?” With the shock of the 9/11 attacks still fresh, with much of world opinion sympathetic to us, with the man who had ordered those attacks holed up in a cave in the rugged mountains filling the horizon, I had no doubt our leaders wouldn’t hesitate to unleash nearly everything they had. I figured a couple of thousand crack American Special Forces troops would do the job, and from what I’ve read from the few of those folks who were there, it probably would’ve. I was mystified as the days passed and no iron-willed, superbly trained force of Rambos appeared. Wasn’t it Dick Cheney who once famously remarked: “What’s the point of having the world’s most powerful military if you never use it?” I still cannot fathom why he and his boss did not use it against the world’s most dangerous terrorist who had just killed thousands of innocent people in one of the bloodiest foreign attacks on U.S. soil in our history. Great judgment, Dick.

Instead, the reporters at Tora Bora watched American jets flying circles in the crystalline sky, occasionally dropping small strings of bombs that cracked like thunder in the canyons and sent up big puffs of smoke and dust. We eventually followed the Afghans up into the mountains and saw al-Qaeda bunkers that had been blown to smithereens. We came on a bombed-out terrorist training camp, complete with an obstacle course of zig-zag balance beams and overhead bars for monkey swings. There was even the incongruous sight of an empty swimming pool up there in that rugged, dry terrain. Our translators told us it was Osama’s swimming pool, the place where he liked to loll and exercise, although it could just as easily have been for training recruits.

We saw a tiny handful of Special Forces or perhaps CIA guys zipping past on the dirt roads up there, trailing clouds of dust in their dark Chevy Suburbans that were outfitted with blacked-out windows and whip antennae mounted on the back bumpers. They were directing the American air strikes and the ground offensive, such as it was. The rumor among the press corps was that they also had a suitcase stuffed with $20 million in cash, which they were doling out to the warlords to buy their assistance and hopefully their loyalty. Some of those guys, it turns out, were also arguing vehemently up the chain for reinforcements, saying they were almost certain they had heard bin Laden’s voice on radio transmissions, confirmed by trusted Afghan allies. But their pleas were ignored or overruled.

bin-ladenThe result was that bin Laden and his cadre slipped through the snow-covered mountain passes into Pakistan, living to plot and fight another day, another day that has now turned into nearly a decade.

The whole operation was a miserable, humiliating failure, and I think it added immeasurably to al-Qaeda’s confidence, mystique and appeal to would-be recruits. I believe bin Laden thought he would die at Tora Bora. Imagine his glee as he spurred his horse down the passes into Pakistan, his face flush with the realization that he had outwitted the world’s most powerful nation yet again, and this time in a set-piece battle, if you can believe that. Some have argued that making him a martyr would’ve hurt us just as badly, but I don’t believe that. Wiping out bin Laden and the group’s leadership would’ve dealt the terrorists a terrible blow, eliminating hard-earned expertise, contacts, access to money, decades of experience and a charisma that might never be matched. Had we dispensed with them at Tora Bora, others inevitably would’ve stepped in to do their work, but it would’ve taken them years, even decades, to reach the level of sophistication of their predecessors. More than likely, al Qaeda would’ve been beset by factional in-fighting, disarray and a nasty leadership struggle. It seems extremely unlikely a single terrorist with bin Laden’s stature would’ve emerged to fill the vacuum, at least not for a long time.

Now President Obama is coming under fire for his refusal to abandon the Afghan war and his decision to instead send in more American troops. It’s a tough call, but the stakes are high. In a recent interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Bergen said that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would quickly lead to a Taliban takeover, and, since the Taliban is closely allied with al-Qaeda, a rapid resumption of the situation that existed in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. The country would again become a safe haven and training ground for al-Qaeda, allowing it to rebuild, regroup and probably eventually attempt fresh attacks on the West. Again, my limited experience on the ground tells me Bergen most likely is right.

Like most Americans I’m tired of the Afghan war and frustrated at how badly it has been waged, although I blame the politicians, not the soldiers. I also question whether we can ever really “win” there.

But the alternative, withdrawal, is in effect an invitation for another major terrorist attack. That attack will probably come anyway, eventually, but withdrawing from Afghanistan and allowing al-Qaeda to flourish there again, unimpeded, would hasten it and possibly multiply its scale, making it far more dramatic and lethal.

All of which makes Bush’s incredible blunder at Tora Bora even more maddening. And for me, it makes the media’s rush to declare that Afghanistan is now “Obama’s war,” even more frustrating. He is faced with a decision dumped in his lap by his predecessor’s mistakes, and I believe any president, of either party or any ideological stripe, would come to the same unpleasant but unavoidable conclusion. To give up and turn Afghanistan over to bin Laden and Mullah Omar is to ignore the very real threat of more death and destruction within our own borders. The difficulties have been multiplied exponentially by Bush’s cascade of errors, primarily his failure to nab or kill bin Laden when he had the chance and his ill-advised or outright deceitful claim that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were a greater threat to us.

As a result, we’ve squandered eight years and countless American and civilian lives in Afghanistan, along with nearly a trillion dollars and countless more lives invading and occupying Iraq, which posed no serious threat. We’ve exhausted the American public’s patience and willingness to back a fight that to me seems necessary, however unpleasant and costly.

The other huge problem, of course, is the lawless territory of the Pakistani Tribal Areas along the Afghan border, another place I got to glimpse as a reporter. It is a sobering, frightful place, a feudal throwback where it seems everyone is armed and brute force rules. Even if we succeed in quelling the Taliban in Afghanistan and help build a credible Afghan government and effective Afghan military (something we should’ve been doing the past eight years), bin Laden and his cronies can simply hide out across the border, as they’ve done for years already. With Pakistan increasingly unstable, with its impoverished masses increasingly under the spell of militant extremists, our challenge there is probably greater than in Afghanistan. Any significant incursion by US ground forces into Pakistan would ignite tumult that might bring down the shaky, questionable government in power now, which at least pays lip service to being our ally. I have no answer for what to do about this problem, but abandoning it to fester unmolested seems a very risky choice.

I come back to the fact that the worsening situation in Pakistan is yet another consequence of Bush’s string of catastrophic misjudgments. Had we ignored the trumped-up “threat” of Iraq and instead focused our efforts and resources on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the past decade, had we eliminated bin Laden when we had the chance, it seems likely we would be in a much stronger position in those countries today. I’m not saying we would’ve “won,” or transformed those troubled nations into western-style secular democracies. But it’s hard to imagine that we could be any worse off than we are now.

The important point that I think the press and most of the public are ignoring is that the responsibility for the current mess lies squarely and completely at the feet of George W. Bush, not Barack Obama. Criticize Obama, disagree with him, protest his decisions, but don’t deny the fact that he’s doing his best in a cauldron of snakes, alligators and sharks that he inherited, lock, stock and barrel, from his predecessor.

It is and always will be Bush’s war. Like LBJ after JFK, Obama will put his own stamp on it with the decisions he makes, hopefully with better judgment and results. But for at least the next several years, Bush’s impeccably bad judgment will shape and limit every possible option he has to choose from.

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Finding Something in the Woods http://likethedew.com/2009/08/09/finding-something-in-the-woods/ http://likethedew.com/2009/08/09/finding-something-in-the-woods/#comments Mon, 10 Aug 2009 00:25:15 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=5082

IMG_0194 Are you backpacking?

A lady outfitted with Bermuda shorts, white tennis shoes and wide eyes asked the question as we passed on the trail leading over Round Bald on the Tennessee/North Carolina border.

Her husband, nifty in his own Bermuda shorts, didn’t say a thing. By the sharp look and raised eyebrow he cast my way, I’m guessing he was about to ask, “What the hell are you doing out here? And why?”

I was wrestling with the same question, and I wasn’t winning. It was an octopus, harassing me with too many arms, and I was trying to fight it off while hauling what felt like two tons on my back.

The question of what I’m doing – and why — always dogs my backpacking trips. Head out into the woods hauling 50 pounds on your back, camp in the rain, swallow as many insects as food with dinner, sleep on the hard ground, listen to strange things outside your tent in the black night, get as dirty as you’ve been since you were six and played in the mud all day. Why, in heaven’s name?

Big Chief3This time, going on five months into a fuzzy, confusing new life status – laid-off, career-transitioning, retired, semi-retired??? — the tentacles of doubt were wickedly persistent.

I was seeking something out there in the woods, but exactly what it was, I really didn’t know.

With a lot of time to think about things – precisely one of the things I was trying to get away from – I tried to cast the trip in high-flown intellectual/spiritual terms. I recalled Emerson, vaguely, from the college lit classes I had taken 30 years ago.

Back in the 1830’s, he started a movement called Transcendentalism. This was years before the Beatles ever met Tree Roots_2Guru Maharishi. (Emerson actually studied Buddhism, but there are no reports of him taking up the sitar or levitating.)  His insights prompted his friend Henry David Thoreau to take to the Massachusetts woods and live in a shack for a year. In my funk, that sounded good to me.

Emerson went on to break with the organized religion of his day – another plus in my book – declaring dogma a hindrance to what he saw as the need for a solitary search for meaning. He believed the universe was joined by one central force that coursed through everything, and that awareness of this force was available to anybody, with no need for priests or written admonitions.

There are no reports of Emerson doing a lot of recreational drugs; his appeared to be a “natural” high. Sure Rough Trailenough, he praised what he called “nature,” although he probably did not mean exactly what we would today. “Tree-hugger” isn’t the first image that comes to mind when Emerson’s name is invoked. If you’ve read some of his poetry, well, it’s a product of its times, perhaps a bit stuffy by today’s standards, but certainly classical. I find an easier kinship with Neil Young, but I still can see what Emerson was getting at. He praised the virtue of spending time alone in the unspoiled woods, and that fit the immediate needs of my hike. I would go forth into the wilderness seeking deep truths and profundities, a word Jon Stewart could probably get a lot of mileage out of.

Well, the profundities proved elusive.

Backpacking, simply put, is miserable, or at least it almost always starts out that way for me. After a mile or so, like always, an uncomfortable burn from the backpack’s straps flared in my hips and shoulders and soon became a deep ache. Instead of inspired, I was irritated. I had entered an alluring dark tunnel overhung by mighty trees in deep forest, but soon I was stumbling like a blind monk over rocks and roots only half visible in the subdued light. Later, when I broke out onto a bald under a blazing sun, I sweated buckets and cursed the drops that kept sticking to my glasses. The thin reed of trail was overgrown at ankle-height by grasses that obscured the tread in places. Just as I’d work up a nice pace I’d suddenly stumble on a hidden rock.

And the mountains, for all their glory, were punishing. I huffed and puffed and strained, pausing at times during particularly steep climbs to heave air like a sprinter at the end of a grueling, mid-distance race. My pack, stuffed with all the gizmos I couldn’t bear to leave behind, was killing me. Sometimes I’d gasp for a spell, finally recovering enough to raise my head, only to feel my heart cave as yet another stretch of trail climbed at just as steep an angle, disappearing out of sight around a far-off bend.

Emerson’s almost as big an idiot as me, I told myself. I’m not getting any enlightenment out of this torture.

But I resisted the urge to give up. Somewhere along the line I recalled reading a book about hiking and the joys of the woods, and the author warned that there is no way to get into shape for carrying a heavy backpack other than by carrying a heavy backpack, preferably up steep inclines. The first two or three days are almost always misery, he wrote, so just stick with it. Eventually your body will adapt, the hiking will get easier, the pain will subside or become manageable, and rewards will start surfacing, popping up along the trail like hidden treasures.

And that’s just what happened, although it took some time. On the third day I was still beat and bruised, still battling the octopus. On impulse, I dumped the heavy pack behind a rock, slipped on a light day pack with food, water and rain gear, and hiked several miles out to another peak and back. Dropping the weight by 75 percent was a wonderful release and my spirits soared. The next morning I loaded up and attacked a 1,000-foot climb with the full rig and found my step surprisingly limber and energetic. What’s more, I transferred my point-and-shoot camera to a pocket in my shorts where I could grab it in a few seconds, instead of  buried someplace deep in my pack. Suddenly I started seeing remarkable things everywhere around me, and even if I failed at capturing most of them with the camera, I completely forgot about the grind of those pack straps.

The morning light was fantastic, slanting through the spruce and fir trees, turning sections of the trail into dazzling contrasts of light and shadow. Intensely green mosses matted ancient weathered rocks. Tangles of roots criss-crossing the dark trail leaped out in bright pools of light, transforming themselves from obstacles into pleasing geometric shapes. An old stump, overturned years ago by some mountain gale, looked like a Medusa’s head. Slivers of blue sky visible through the palisade of tree trunks took on impossibly deep hues.

IMG_0445Later that day I stumbled onto a wide-open expanse of bald at 5,000 feet. An outcrop of  weathered boulders surfaced out of the thick grass carpet, and a few scraggly trees next to the rocks offered just enough shelter to make an inviting spot for pitching a tent. I did that, boiled water for a freeze-dried dinner, sipped a bit of wine, and felt, as the evening fell, an immense silence envelope me. I was miles from the nearest car, house, road or anything man-made. The silence grew until it seemed as deep as the ocean, broken only by the rhythm of my breath and heart-beat. Silence so profound, extending for miles in all directions, is one of the rarest things left in our world.

I know that climbing a mountain seeking enlightenment is a tired cliché, and you can probably find the same thing just going to a bar and getting sloppy drunk. But I can’t abide the hangovers.

It was probably just a mild hallucination brought on by exhaustion, but as I sat on those boulders and surveyed the terrain, I somehow eased into a state that allowed that silence to work a bit of magic. It quieted my thoughts, reducing me to something of a placid, equal participant in the beauty of that fading afternoon. An owl down on the edge of the woods hooted, and the simple call seemed almost other-worldly. A group of coyotes pierced the dusk silence with a shrill chorus of howls, but then almost immediately stopped. A doe hissed a warning, half-hidden over the rise at the top of the bald, and the perky ears of her two fawns just visible on the horizon’s brim bobbed, then disappeared. But mostly there was absolute silence. I felt rooted to that rock, my butt and legs and back joined by gravity to the earth’s center. I was riding the planet as it spun. The rest of me felt marvelously borderless, my torso somehow merging into the deepening sky, the light shafting over the clouds and the endless lines of mountains that stretched to the horizon.

Emerson would be labeled a New Age guru these days, setting up shop with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and probably going on “Oprah” with that mousy little guy who wrote “The Power of Now.” But there’s a thread in what he writes, in what all of them write, that works for me. It turned an otherwise aimless trip into the woods into something of a transcendental experience. It took away definitions and demarcations of time, worry, ambition, ego, and replaced them with a different sense of being, a connection to something I think is more lasting than the ways we’ve chosen to filter our perceptions and define ourselves and the world that surrounds us.

And that, as the wag says, with two bucks will get you a cup of coffee.

Two days later I was back in the drive-thru line at Taco Bell, incensed at something some boneheaded politician was proposing on the radio, worried by bills and uncertainties, light years away from my reverie on that bald. But that fleeting moment remains, and it’s within potential grasp again, although it seems to take both effort and mindful letting-go to catch it. Maybe it isn’t necessary to go through the rigors of a backpack trip to get it. But I’m guessing Emerson’s ghost might still be shifting around somewhere up there in the evening fog, waiting for a visitor. Who knows, maybe he and Neil Young are swapping lines of poetry.

Photos by Mike Williams. From top:

Sunset from Beartown Mountain

View of balds and Roan Mountain from Little Hump Mountain

Birch tree roots on a rock, Beartown Mountain

Appalachian Trail on Roan Mountain

Sunset from Little Hump Mountain

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Bald Mountains: Another Unique, Endangered Southern Treasure http://likethedew.com/2009/07/31/bald-mountains-another-unique-endangered-southern-treasure/ http://likethedew.com/2009/07/31/bald-mountains-another-unique-endangered-southern-treasure/#comments Sat, 01 Aug 2009 00:31:09 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=4801

IMG_0632If you care for stunning views and spectacular landscapes, there is no better place in the South than the balds along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Jane and Round balds, along with Grassy Ridge, all north of Roan Mountain, are fabulous expanses of open grassy highlands stretching for hundreds of acres. The views are unparalleled on clear days, with fold after fold of blue-tinged mountain ranges rolling in every direction like a storm-tossed sea. Temperatures in mid-summer can be mild, often chilly, with bracing breezes ramping up to minor gales, sometimes accompanied by wisps of fog or passing cottony clouds that envelope the 5,000-foot-plus summits.

You don’t have to be a backpacker to take in these views, either, even though the Appalachian Trail crosses the balds. They are easily accessible from Highway 226 that connects Spruce Pine, N.C. to the Johnson City, Tn. area, requiring only a slightly taxing walk of a half-hour along a well-maintained gravel trail that climbs only a few hundred feet from the parking area beside the highway at Carver’s Gap.

IMG_0813What you will experience is a one-of-a-kind natural setting, and also something of a natural mystery. Nobody knows exactly why some of the tallest mountains in the Appalachians are bald. Verdant grasses and sedges that grow nowhere else this far south carpet the mountaintops, the invading line of trees and bushes for some reason stopping short of taking over the terrain.

But, like so much of our natural world, this unique, self-contained mini-universe is teetering on the brink of disappearance. Numerous balds in recent decades have grown over with trees, wiping out rare and often endangered plants, many of which typically live only thousands of miles farther north. The plants in turn support bird and possibly other animal species that are also rare in these parts.

And why should we care, I guess some might say? To me, losing the balds would be like letting a Picasso or a Monet deteriorate on your walls from neglect, moldering and fading until it finally simply vanished, a work of great genius, inspiration and uniqueness gone forever.

Bradley GapScientists debate how and why the balds formed. According to an excellent piece in Audubon Magazine a few years ago, one of the most dedicated researchers is Peter D. Weigl, an ecologist from Wake Forest University who has spent four decades studying these unique habitats. Weigl believes the balds were a remnant of the last ice age, when howling, frigid weather forced trees to retreat from the mountaintops, inviting a profusion of grasses and plants more accustomed to living in tundra-like settings much farther north. The grasses attracted creatures like mastodons, tapirs and mammoths, which grazed the areas like pre-historic weed-eaters, keeping them clear. When most of those big creatures suddenly disappeared about 10,000 years ago, bison and elk moved in.

Some researchers also believe Native Americans may have kept the balds clear by fire, too, perhaps maintaining them in order to make easier hunting of the beasts that feasted there.

As with so many of our environmental histories, things changed when European settlers arrived. Within a century they killed off most of the bison and elk. Fortunately for the balds, the early farmers quickly capitalized on the waiting pastures, turning loose their goats, pigs, sheep and cattle, who grazed contentedly, keeping up the natural history of treeless mountaintops.

IMG_0528But over the past few decades, most such grazing has vanished as mountain people have taken cash jobs and cut back on the size of their farming operations. The balds that for millennia have supported a unique panoply of plants like Gray’s lily, green alder, three-toothed cinquefoil, greenland sandwort, Bicknell’s rock rose and bronze sedge are now steadily shrinking beneath a steady advance of trees, shrubs and bushes.

A few efforts have been made, some with encouraging results, to re-introduce grazers, especially goats, to eat back the vegetation. A scarcity of funding or a crowded list of priorities has kept the U.S. Forest and National Park services from large-scale projects, however, and many of the balds stretching from Virginia to northern Georgia will likely disappear within a few more decades. Even in the Smokies, officials have decided to concentrate their conservation efforts on Andrews and Gregory balds, while Spence and Russell fields grow over, untended.

Despite the government’s lack of commitment, efforts to preserve the balds are still underway, most carried out by private non-profits like the Nature Conservancy, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Volunteers spend long hours hacking back IMG_0624the vegetation with weed-eaters, loppers and other tools. The Friends of Roan Mountain is funding a project that maintains a goatherd on the balds, something you can support with a donation. On Hump Mountain, another bald a few miles north of Roan, conservationists have encouraged a farmer who has imported long-horned African cattle to graze that massive open highland, making for a stirring sight for passersby.

If you’ve never seen the balds, they are worth the trip, perfect for an afternoon of priceless views among plants you will see nowhere else south of Canada. And they could use your help, too, if you care to preserve this unique part of the South.

To learn more about the balds and support their preservation, visit these websites:

Photos from top:

Foggy sunrise from Little Hump Mountain

Cattle on Hump Mountain look out toward Grandfather Mountain

Hump Mountain from Bradley Gap

Sunrise from Little Hump Mountain

Appalachian Trail descending Little Hump Mountain

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Hemlocks in the Smokies: An Update http://likethedew.com/2009/06/17/hemlocks-in-the-smokies-an-update/ http://likethedew.com/2009/06/17/hemlocks-in-the-smokies-an-update/#comments Wed, 17 Jun 2009 23:52:14 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=3515

Dead HemlocksIn a previous post I wrote about the devastation that tiny insects called hemlock woody adelgids are bringing to one of the signature trees of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

On a recent trail-maintenance work trip in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I saw just how bad things are. This photo, looking west-southwest from the summit of Rocky Top, a 5,400 peak located south of Clingman’s Dome, says it all. Most of the gray, dead tree skeletons carpeting the ridge are hemlocks, gone forever.

As I noted previously, the park is attempting to save some of the hemlocks by treating them with an insecticide, mostly along roads and in high-visibility areas. This photo shows the sad reality in the backcountry, where widespread treatment would be nearly impossible.

Another sad example presented itself in a dark cove (too dark for a decent photo with my limited skills) on our hike into the work site. On the Bote Mountain Trail at about 4,000 feet in elevation we passed a magnificent old hemlock, nearly five feet in diameter, with deep vertical bark furrows that gave the tree the look of a sturdy, wise elder. The tree must’ve been at least 200 years old, perhaps much older, but unfortunately it, too, was dead, killed by the adelgids.

Hemlocks, of course, thrived until humans unwittingly imported the adelgids from Asia in modern times.

If you want to make a donation to help save these gorgeous trees, visit http://www.friendsofthesmokies.org. The group has contributed more than $1 million to treat and save hemlocks in the Smokies.

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Florida’s environment takes a hit http://likethedew.com/2009/06/02/floridas-environment-takes-a-hit/ http://likethedew.com/2009/06/02/floridas-environment-takes-a-hit/#respond Wed, 03 Jun 2009 00:08:52 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=2988

sprawlIf Floridians want to see the future, they should look to California. No, not gorgeous mountains, towering redwoods or dramatic, windswept beaches. Thanks to a bill passed by Florida lawmakers this spring and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist on June 1, Florida’s future will be one of more rampant growth, unbridled development and ever-expanding urban sprawl.

“With the stroke of a pen, the governor removed the most powerful tools to manage growth, require road improvements and prevent overdevelopment,” the St. Petersburg Times concluded in an editorial, dubbing Crist “Governor Gridlock.”

Environmentalists had hoped that Crist would veto the bill, which was pushed by developers and business interests under the guise of stimulating the state’s moribund economy and creating new jobs. But Crist, a Republican with a moderate, even populist image and high approval ratings due in part to his willingness to take on galloping home insurance rates, caved on this one, signing the bill with no public ceremony. He told reporters, “I know it’s probably one of those bills where nobody’s going to be overly happy on either side of the argument.”

Developers seem quite happy, though, since they’ve gotten rid of cumbersome, costly regulations enacted 25 years ago, regulations once considered something of a national model for reasonable growth management.

27862-hi-trafficGone are rules requiring them, in many instances, to build roads to handle the traffic created by new projects. Ditto for regs governing huge developments like regional malls and gigantic residential/commercial projects, which were previously subjected to extensive evaluations of how they would impact neighboring communities.

As a sop, the bill calls for a study of a “mobility fee” that would make developers pay for road improvements. But lawmakers would have to pass a law to adopt the new fee, something that seems unlikely without a sea-change in Tallahassee.

All of the state’s major environmental groups opposed the bill, which they said would turn back the clock to the go-go days of the 1970s and early 1980s, when gigantic boom towns gobbled up thousands of acres at a time and sprawl began oozing inexorably around Florida’s largest cities.

“We’re pretty disappointed with this outcome, Charles Pattison of 1,000 Friends of Florida, one of the state’s leading environmental groups, told The Miami Herald.

While Florida’s beaten-up real estate market and a marked slowdown in the arrival of new residents in the current economic crisis may mean it will take a few years before developers really take advantage of the weakened regulations, that day seems inevitable.

Floridians who have cursed rush-hour traffic in urban corridors surrounding Orlando, Tampa/St. Pete, Jacksonville and the mega-sprawl stretching from West Palm Beach to south of Miami can now look forward to more – and more and more – of the same. Some may have taken solace after visits to LA, San Diego or the San Francisco Bay/Silicon Valley areas in California (not to mention Atlanta), knowing that as bad as Florida’s traffic and urban sprawl were, at least it was worse in a few other places.

That may not be the case in a few years, thanks to Crist and the Republican-controlled Florida legislature.

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Are days numbered for a signature tree? http://likethedew.com/2009/05/26/are-days-numbered-for-a-signature-tree/ http://likethedew.com/2009/05/26/are-days-numbered-for-a-signature-tree/#comments Wed, 27 May 2009 00:29:13 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=2823

hemlock-gateVisitors to the Great Smoky Mountains have been captivated by the scene for decades: gorgeous evergreen trees clustered around the rushing waters of boulder-strewn mountain streams. The trees, in most cases, are hemlocks, their roots snaking impossibly among the lichen-covered rocks and their needle-laden branches framing the streams in postcard perfection. In winter snow, with powder piled deep on both boughs and boulders, the scenes can be breath-taking.

Unfortunately, hemlocks are in very real danger of being wiped out. In the past few decades a tiny insect called the “hemlock wooly adelgid” has spread like wildfire from New England to the Carolinas and on into the Georgia mountains, leaving experts worried the trees will go the way of the American chestnut and the Dutch elm. As you might guess, the hemlock tormentors were imported from overseas by humans, coming from Asia, unintentionally, I’m sure.

You can spot an infested tree in a second: just turn over a low branch or look up to the underside of one higher. The adelgids, which are themselves almost too tiny to see with the naked eye, create small white cottony tufts that start out as dots but can grow so thick they almost carpet the bottom of the branches. You’ll recognize them immediately and the tree will probably look “sick:” wan, with spotty needles of a weak, grayish green instead of a vibrant, greenish-blue. There are bare, dead branches in advanced cases. The insects sap the life from the trees and quickly send them on a downward spiral that can kill a healthy 80-footer within a few years.

Biologists are studying the problem but as yet there is no great hope for a reversal of what appears to be a possible march toward extinction. They are experimenting with a species of beetle (a non-native, unfortunately) that feasts on the adelgids, but this has not yet proven to be a large-scale solution. It also seems like typical human tinkering, messing around with a web of life far too complicated for us to completely understand, that may well turn out to have unintended consequences and could wreak havoc on some other part of the eco-system. A biologist I ran into on a hike was collecting samples of infested hemlocks; she warned me, as an individual property owner, away from the beetles, saying they were best left for now to researchers and experts.

hwaBut there is another human solution: an insecticide. It works, but it is costly, difficult to apply and carries plenty of its own hazards, as it kills more than just adelgids. To me, it’s akin to the “nuclear option.”

Nevertheless, my wife and I pondered long and hard about whether to use it on our hemlocks in North Carolina. We love the trees dearly, and I can’t bear to stand by idly and watch them die. We finally decided we had no choice, because if we did not use it, it was clear we would lose every last one of our several hundred hemlocks. Many were infested when we bought our land, and several were near death.

The treatment is sweaty, hard work, filled with slippery climbs up steep slopes, slashing briars and branches poking you in the eyes. You inject the insecticide around the tree’s roots with a hand-pumped gizmo with a big needle on the end that is jabbed into the ground. It’s especially difficult work in rocky soil. A second method is to instead splash the poison around the base of the tree, something that doesn’t work too well on a steep slope. With both methods you have to make repeated trips to fetch water for your mix or to refill the injector, and the water for the injector must be free of all debris or the device will clog.

A third application method is to spray, an option only practical for baby trees, while a fourth is a system that requires drilling holes in the trunk and injecting the poison directly into the tree. This last method is very slow, cumbersome and the equipment quite expensive, but it’s safe for the surrounding environment and is the only option if the tree’s “feet” are near a stream, which you don’t want to pollute with poison injected into the ground.

I have tried all four methods and they are effective. While I continue to feel uneasy using high-powered chemicals, so far I have seen no ill-effects on other plants or bugs, although I’m sure the poison must be killing more than just the adelgids.

Yet another problem with the poison, though, is that it wears off after a few years and the trees must be treated again or they will be re-infested and eventually die.

adelgid2So property owners who love hemlocks face tough choices: either watch your trees die, hire a tree service that will no doubt charge steep prices, or do the work yourself. The injector costs about $300; the cost of the insecticide is tough to estimate, but my best guess is that it runs something like $10 to $15 for a large tree, about 25 inches in diameter.

The biologist I met did give me a small reason for optimism. She said researchers have found the adelgid population itself often eventually crashes, at least locally, because the bugs kill all the hemlocks and must move on to fresh territory to survive. That gives me hope that the wave of bugs currently infesting our valley may one day retreat and I will find our hemlocks no longer need the poison to live. But it may well be that by keeping our trees healthy I’m keeping the adelgids around.

For all the cost, difficult work and worries over injection poison into soil, though, it is immensely gratifying to see our hemlocks thriving. The trees on many adjoining properties are untreated and are well on their way to dying, making a painful scene. But most of ours are flush with life, sprouting tips of bright green new growth, the limbs lush with healthy needles. I sometimes talk to them when I visit, urging them on, promising to do everything I can to help.

Some state and national parks, including the Smokies, have begun treating some of their infested hemlocks, too, although they can afford to do so only on small clumps of trees in high-visibility areas. The trees in the deep woods, miles from any road access, are most likely doomed. And even the accessible ones are typically nestled beside rushing mountain streams, meaning the only way to save them is the direct injection method, the most costly, cumbersome and time-consuming option.

Some hemlocks will likely survive, either by natural selection, luck or the persistence of the owner of the ground on which they stand. But the outlook is not good. In all likelihood, those heart-warming views of hemlocks, boulders and rushing water – views that for many are the unforgettable part of a visit to the Smokies – may be numbered.

For more info on hemlocks: www.saveourhemlocks.org.

To make a donation: www.friendsofthesmokies.org. This group has donated more than $1 million to save hemlocks in the Smokies.

Top photo: A hemlock that has been treated and is healthy

Middle photo: The hemlock wooly adelgid (larger than actual size)

Bottom photo: Adelgids infesting a hemlock branch

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Humbled by My Elders on the Appalachian Trail http://likethedew.com/2009/05/19/humbled-by-my-elders-on-the-appalachian-trail/ http://likethedew.com/2009/05/19/humbled-by-my-elders-on-the-appalachian-trail/#comments Wed, 20 May 2009 00:11:35 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=2561

at-workIt’s a good thing in life to be humbled now and again. I was surprised, though, when my recent come-uppance came at the hands – and feet and strong backs – of a bunch of agile, jolly sixty- and seventy-somethings.

An avid hiker, I volunteered for a week of maintenance work on the Appalachian Trail in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. My legs seasoned from running on the pancake-flat streets of my neighborhood in Florida, my confidence in my backwoods abilities too high for my own good and my backpack brimming with too much stuff, I was sure I’d be able to do my share. I would be no tenderfoot shedding folding chairs and cheap Wal-Mart inflatable mattresses fit for a swimming pool as I made my way up the trail.

Bob, Sylvia, Herb and Skywalker – that’s his “trail name” – soon put me in my well-deserved place, but along the way inspired me about the looming season of life I’m approaching. They out-worked, out-hiked, out-joked, out-camped and out-shined the lot of us, their never-flagging positive attitudes a wonderful example for our crew, from the pair of college students who made up the younger set to the middle-aged folks like me who thought they knew something about working in the woods.

I spent a morning with Bob shoring up a spot where the trail crossed a rushing mountain stream, and at 75 he lifted, hauled, shoved and levered boulders so huge that it left me astonished. We needed the biggest rock we could find, he said, to make our treadway in the very bottom of the stream, and he was absolutely certain the six-foot-long, three-foot wide and one-foot tall monster lying just downhill from our crossing was the perfect candidate. I had no doubts we’d never move the thing an inch, but Bob miraculously, and nearly single-handedly, propelled it straight up the steep slope using nothing but the sharp end of a mattock that he levered beneath it. He moved that giant rock, one inch at the time, while the rest of us scrambled to help. It was a lesson in patience and persistence.

A retired industrial arts teacher from Richmond, Bob hiked the entire trail at 55, liking it so much he did it again, in sections, in later years. At 75 he still dusted most of us on the five-mile trek to our campsite, only to eagerly volunteer to shoulder more than his share of our common gear, food and tools on the way out. By then, most of the rest of us were stumbling from exhaustion and conveniently looked the other way or wandered off to fetch some forgotten item when the call went out to carry the stuff.

Sylvia, 65 and a grandmother, hiked the trail in sections over a number of years, and, like Bob, does volunteer maintenance work several times a year, both for her local hiking club and for the Appalachian Trail Conference, the national organization that runs our nation’s oldest and arguably most famous trail.

I would bet most people think the trail is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service or some other government agency. That is not the case. The ATC and its affiliated hiking clubs sprinkled from Georgia to Maine shoulder the burden, and the vast majority of the work is accomplished by volunteers.

From late spring through early fall, the group sends out teams of up to a dozen volunteers with a couple of its own paid staffers for work weeks. They labor mightily repairing or re-locating washed-out sections of trail, building rock steps, trimming brush, removing fallen trees blocking the path and turning treacherous stream crossings and steeply-pitched “side-hill” sections into solid, durable tread. The clubs, meanwhile, take primary responsibility for long stretches of the trail and send out their own members on work weeks and weekends for similar labor nearly year-round. Individuals even volunteer to maintain their own two- or three-mile sections, hiking out several times a year, loaded down with tools, keeping the path in good condition.

The work can be brutal, carried on in whatever weather Mother Nature decides to send. Volunteers typically get covered with mud and muck, and occasionally get scratched, bruised, bashed and mashed, although serious injuries are rare as the ever-watchful ATC staffers constantly remind and instruct them about the risks. Every morning as we set out to work, our irrepressible assistant crew-leader, Doug, a retired firefighter, would sing out, “Just remember, safety never takes a holiday!”

I found the work and camaraderie rewarding, and the example of the older volunteers especially heartening. Skywalker, a retired defense worker from New Hampshire, hiked the whole trail, all 2,100-plus miles, in five months at 63, while Herb, at 67 a slow-drawling Tennessee native, hopes to do his last 100 miles or so this summer, capping off a 20-year span of yearly section hikes.

These people love the woods, nature and above all the Appalachian Trail, a living, breathing collective enterprise that would cease to exist without their efforts.

At 54, I can only hope I am as eager, energetic and involved in 20 years. Seeing the commitment and dedication of the ATC staff and volunteers, I have no doubt the trail will be there waiting, in as good shape as willing hands, strong backs and sunny attitudes can keep it.

Photo shows Skywalker and Sylvia at work on the Appalachian Trail.

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Love the Beach (and Everything Else)? Take Action http://likethedew.com/2009/05/05/love-the-beach-and-everything-else-take-action/ http://likethedew.com/2009/05/05/love-the-beach-and-everything-else-take-action/#comments Tue, 05 May 2009 17:12:25 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=2128

st-george-2If you love the beach, there’s something you could do to help save it. Of course if you don’t believe in sea-level rise and climate change, don’t bother. Maybe you think getting to drive to the beach in Albany instead of Panama City would be a good thing. I don’t.

The skeptics scoff at sea-level rise projections, but it seems in recent years they’re having more trouble denying very detailed scientific reports that have documented things like 10,000-year-old ice sheets retreating at an alarming rate and the Northwest Passage between Canada and the Arctic suddenly opening up for the first time since record-keeping began in 1972. As for our beloved Southern beaches and the Gulf of Mexico, an eye-opening map that shows what sea-level rise might do can be found at: http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/new-orleans.shtml. If you like Jazz-Fest, Café DuMonde and Galatoire’s, this map may convince you to visit New Orleans soon and often.

apalach-bay-near-ip-4As for the controversy over whether global warming is real, my scientific background is limited enough that I try to stick to the basics. When I take an ice cube out of the freezer, it always melts. If gigantic ice sheets are melting, the water’s going into the ocean, just like my ice cubes melt in my glass. More water in the ocean means the sea rises, and low-lying cities like Miami, Savannah, New Orleans and Mobile will eventually be at risk. Makes sense to me.

It apparently didn’t make sense to the previous administration in Washington. From what I’ve read, there were pretty heavy-handed orders from high up to deny, obscure, delay and question any claims that climate might be changing for the worse, with potentially devastating impacts, due to human activity.

Fortunately the new administration is taking the science seriously, and proposing we take action rather than drag our feet.

But since I’m pretty limited when it comes to science, I rely on the better-educated. One of my college buddies has done well enough to earn a spot on the board of directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists and to found his own environmental restoration firm. He’s also been trained by Al Gore img_1053and The Climate Project and is active making presentations that basically tell people, “Hey, wake up. There’s hard science, real, measurable facts behind all the hoopla and the headlines, and you might want to think about it, seriously.”

He recently emailed friends to urge them to email the EPA, which is considering listing greenhouse gases as a threat to public health and welfare. This would be important because it would give EPA the authority to begin doing something about the problem, specifically, regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. It might also put a bit of heat on Congress to take action, too.

If you’d like to make your opinion known, the address is: GHG-Endangerment-Docket@epa.gov.

You can simply cut-and-paste the following email if you choose. Be sure to mention the docket number in the subject line:

RE: Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2009-0171

Please accept this message as a comment on EPA’s proposed finding regarding greenhouse gases in the United States (Proposed Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases Under Section 202(a) of the Clean Air Act).

I support EPA’s proposed finding and urge you to aggressively pursue all actions available to you to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in the United States. There is no doubt that greenhouse gases pose a threat to the public health and welfare, now and in the future.

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Palm Tree Paranoia http://likethedew.com/2009/05/04/palm-tree-paranoia/ http://likethedew.com/2009/05/04/palm-tree-paranoia/#comments Mon, 04 May 2009 18:53:41 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=2062

img_0010Like Charlie Seabrook, my fellow contributor to “likethedew,” I’m a tree-kisser, too. Some of my fondest memories are of climbing the magnolias at my grandmother’s family place in Mississippi, and of the tree house my brother and I built in the spreading pecan tree in our backyard in Tuscaloosa, a tree planted by my grandfather around the turn of the last century. Even as an adult, I’ve never lost my boyhood love of trees. One of the most fun assignments I ever managed to weasel out of my employers when I was a newspaper reporter was a feature on Peter Jenkins’ recreational tree-climbing school in Atlanta, something you can check out at www.treeclimbing.com.

But as much as I love trees, I’ve drawn a line in the sand down in sunny Florida where we live. I now hate palms. Our yard is full of them, and they are devilish, evil things, sent here by Lucifer to torture anybody foolish enough to mess with them. The several varieties in our yard have poked me, stabbed me, rained nasty debris into my eyes and routinely mocked me by littering the yard with their messes on a weekly basis.

Palms don’t make a neat mess like oaks or pecans: leaves, attractive nuts and the occasional branch. Instead, they rain down a constant blizzard of tiny winged seeds, goo-filled nuts, splayed, fraying branches and seed stalks, broken “boots”  — weird, stiff, sharp-ended crosses where the fronds attach to the tree — and fronds of great length and weight that can be the devil to cut down. But leave them on the tree dead and your landscaping looks terrible, forlorn and abandoned. Cutting them too late is next to impossible: dried and lifeless they flail when you try to saw them, the blade’s teeth never gaining purchase because the target won’t stand still.

I, for one, won’t dignify palms by calling them trees. Once I removed one after a storm had destroyed its living top, and I was stunned at what the chainsaw revealed. They are not trees, they are giant weeds pretending to be trees. They have no neat, intricate rings or layers: inside they are just millions of long stringy strands of fibers, nothing like the elegance and symmetry inside an oak or a hickory, a real tree. I have to admit this makes them wonderfully adapted to withstanding hurricanes. But palms also don’t have a nicely spreading system of roots beneath the ground mirroring the branches above; beneath the surface they are a rigid single column made up of a million tiny worm-like sprouts, a Medusa’s-head impossible to chop or cut without ruining your tools.

And as a family they are armed with more spikes, daggers and thorns than almost anything else I’ve encountered in nature. Even their seed pods are insidious: They pop open and spew forth a zillion tiny winged seeds that are like so many cluster bombs aimed at taking out your swimming pool pump by clogging up your filter baskets.

img_0009The spikes on one of our palms are as hard and sharp as a steel needle. If you trim a branch you better leap out of the way before it falls. I have been speared, repeatedly, and it is intensely painful, almost as if the needles were dipped in some kind of mild poison. The wounds ache for hours afterwards, prompting my wife to remark that men are just whiners and know nothing about bearing pain since we don’t birth babies. (I didn’t hazard to point out that we have no children).

The outer seed pod husks on a queen palm can grow to five feet in length and weigh up to 25 or 30 pounds, even after they split open and separate from the stalk holding the seeds inside. But the husks are topped by a wicked point, and, when trimmed, they turn over in mid-air as they fall and become medieval javelins hurtling from the sky. A neighbor was speared by one and had to go to the hospital for stitches. Without question, they can take out an eye.

Even the relatively innocuous Chinese fan palms — no spikes or daggers — are aggravating: They have long wispy strands on the ends of their fronds, which, when you try to drag them to the street after trimming, invariably slip beneath your feet — intentionally, I’m convinced — and send you stumbling.

img_0006Yet another variety of palm in our yard – I hate them so much I don’t even want to know the name – has incredibly hard and sharp protrusions on the stalk near the base of the frond. They look like shark’s teeth, but are small enough to be easily overlooked. The first time I trimmed them and casually picked them up to drag them to the street, my hand slid up the stalk and caught on those protrusions, which dug painfully into my skin, making a surprisingly deep, jagged wound. But of course I’m just a wimpy guy.

And there is nothing like trimming a tall palm with a “pole saw,” a gizmo on a long fiberglass pole that appears designed to break your back as well as cut high limbs. Our trees are so tall I have to stand on a six-foot step-ladder and then use a 12-foot pole saw to reach them. I have given up on some of the trees because it would take a 12-foot ladder — and the long saw —  to span the distance. But no matter where I place the ladder on the ones I can reach, the blinding Florida sun is always directly in my eyes and the wind direction is such that a steady stream of sawdust and stringy debris filters out of the treetop directly into my face, my eyes, my hair and down my shirt. I can hear the palm laughing with a smirking, evil tone every time this happens.

We are also lucky enough to have a gorgeous spreading laurel oak in our backyard. It is a wonderful tree, a real tree, one with branches and leaves, not fronds and fibers, and it offers a world of shade all afternoon long beneath its delightfully pleasing profile. Best of all, it demands attention only once a year when its leaves must be raked.

You may love seeing palms silhouetted against a salt marsh or a stunning beach view in the sunset, but I’m telling you: they are evil, nasty things. They are sentient beings out to get ……. me.

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Pick up B-Ball and Torture http://likethedew.com/2009/04/24/pick-up-b-ball-and-torture/ http://likethedew.com/2009/04/24/pick-up-b-ball-and-torture/#comments Fri, 24 Apr 2009 18:23:02 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=1504

george-bushWhen George W. Bush was at Yale, he played intra-mural basketball. Decades later, a competitor from those glorified pick-up games could still remember what the man who became our president stood out for most: he played dirty. While most of the other intra-mural players were more interested in a friendly game, Bush threw elbows, shoved other players around beneath the basket and generally evinced a “win at all-costs” attitude that some of the other players found unseemly, according to a profile I read in the New Yorker or some other “liberal” publication.

broo450That image has stuck with me, and, in light of revelations in the New York Times about the Bush administration’s rush to adopt harsh interrogation tactics in the crisis following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it resonates even more. Bush’s approach to intramural sports, and, presumably, to life, joined with his famous incuriosity, anti-intellectualism and his absolute self-assurance to lead our country down a morally repugnant, disastrous path. I want a confident leader, to be sure, but I don’t want a man who never admits to doubts and adamantly insists he never engages in self-reflection.

So it comes as no surprise to read the Times’ April 22nd headline: “In Adopting Harsh Tactics, No Inquiry Into Their Past Use.”  So rushed, so fearful of another attack and so consumed with a desire to win the struggle against our enemies at any cost were the Bush underlings that they did not even know when they proposed the use of waterboarding that the practice “had been prosecuted by the United States in war-crimes trials after World War II,” the Times reports.

wtort16They bolstered their shoddy intellectual case by basing it in part on a military program developed to help American pilots survive capture and presumed torture at the hands of the communists during the Korean War. But they failed to delve deeply enough into the history of the program to learn that many of the pilots who were indeed captured and tortured were convinced the harsh tactics were ineffective. These were our men who had actually been tortured, and they said the harsh tactics mostly elicited only false confessions. But Bush and his team didn’t bother to seek the benefit of their experiences or insights.

Also disturbing is a quote in the Times from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s counselor, Philip Zelikow, who noted that while Bush was “entitled to get the most thoughtful and searching analysis our government could muster,” he apparently didn’t bother to seek it, or didn’t get it. “Competent staff work could have quickly canvassed relevant history, insights from the best law enforcement and military interrogators and lessons from the painful British and Israeli experience,” Zelikow stated. Too big a crisis for that, though, so let’s just waterboard ‘em and worry about the consequences and the morality later.

resid_43685sSo we had an incompetent rush to switch one of our nation’s bedrock precepts – humans rights and freedom from unjust government coercion – to a new policy of winning at all costs, fighting dirty, sacrificing our honor and principles because they were no longer convenient, or because the threat against us was so great it was no longer worth the risk that sticking to those principles might cost us.

I am sure conservatives would say I’m sounding like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who tried to negotiate with Hitler. I believe in a strong national defense, and I was itching as much as any American for payback after watching the Twin Towers fall. But I believe it is best to act out of cool detachment, not blind passion, and to take at least enough time with an important decision to search my conscience and make sure my actions agree with my principles, much less that a well-canvassed group of objective, skeptical subordinates actually agree the policy would be effective.

Dick Cheney claims the torture got us valuable intelligence. It may even have averted another attack. My question to him is: was it worth it? Is it better to play dirty and win than to stand for something all good-thinking people agree is a higher purpose, even if it might mean you pay a price? I think I know what Abraham Lincoln and George Washington would’ve said.

iraq_torture_01Is it possible, too, that in a democracy, there should be an open debate over something so momentous as a decision by our leaders to adopt a policy of torturing our enemies? Untidy stuff, such debates. It seems clear Cheney, at least, believed in the unfettered power of the president, that one man, surrounded by a tiny group of yes-men, could and should make such a decision.

I am thankful that our new president believes differently. Cheney can spin the story all he wants on Fox News. At least we’re having the debate now. Obama, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, is intellectually honest and secure enough to take such a momentous step in full public view, willing to meet his critics and defend his approach on something so essential to our nation’s self-identity and international reputation.

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