LOCAL VIEW –Halloween; Check Your Berries–

In the process of running my childcare I’ve noticed children learn quite early, while wandering the woods, to identify what they are allowed to nibble and what they should not eat, and then like to show off this knowledge to their parents. Parents often tell me that their child slightly horrified them by eating some unknown berry as they hiked in the woods, and, when rebuked, the child then delighted in informing them that the berry was actually safe, because Mr. Shaw had told them so, and that they eat the same berries all the time at my Childcare.

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I have always been fascinated by the way children absorb such knowledge, partly because some might kill themselves, if not carefully scrutinized. Last summer we were entrusted with a very young child still in diapers who we had to constantly watch, as he mouthed just about everything he came across. He exhausted my staff, who took to kicking mushrooms as they popped up, out of a fear the boy would munch a poisonous one, yet one day I received a panicked phone-call  because, despite their best efforts, the toddler had grabbed and munched a mushroom. Through the wonders of cellphones I immediately saw a picture, and determined the mushroom was not one of the notoriously deadly species, but it was also not one of the sort I know are edible and pick for my own table, so we sent the picture on to a mushroom-expert at a poison- control-center, who informed us it was relatively safe, though the child might experience diarrhea and gas. (He didn’t, which was probably a pity, as the lad learned no lesson, and went right on merrily mouthing twigs, pebbles, grass, and the occasional insect). (However I did note that by the end of the summer he had learned to hold things up towards me briefly, with inquiring eyebrows, to see to what degree I’d freak out.)

I wonder how it is any child survives to age three. The reason we have poison-control-centers is largely due to children, and they are just as likely to poison themselves indoors as outdoors. Our Childcare is inspected by the State, and we get “written up” if so much as a scouring pad is stored down where a child can get at it and pop it into their mouth. It makes me wonder how our species survived back before we had cell phones and poison-control-centers and inspectors from the State. I assume the answer is that children were watched with great care, and not likely allowed to toddle where there were dangerous plants and mushrooms visible, and instead papooses were swaddled in backpacks under such circumstances.  Children likely were constantly instructed, from a very early age, during their daily existence. Also likely tragedies occurred then, just they occur now.

Sometimes a thoughtful child will ask,  “How do you know that berry is poisonous?” Good question. I usually answer with a question, “What do you do when you don’t know?” All the but the littlest child knows the stock answer, “We leave it alone”, because I drill that maxim into their little skulls from the first day they arrive. Some even roll their eyes, as they answer, because they have heard me pronounce this commandment so often, with the severe, grey-eyebrowed authority of Moses.

A child’s curiosity is not so easily assuaged, and a more persistent child will pester for a better answer, and the answer must be, “Someone, a long, long time ago, made a mistake, and did eat that plant, and got very sick or died.” Humanity likely learned a lot the hard way. One general rule of thumb I learned years ago, when tasting a plant I was not entirely certain I had correctly identified, was to always try a very small amount. Then, if it is poisonous, or if you are personally allergic, you may merely get violently ill, and skip the silly business of dying.

I once knew a man who ate a poisonous nut that made him throw up for twelve hours straight, and it was somewhat amazing, he later confessed, how he was unable to eat any sort of nut afterwards, and also was not able to eat things he’d eaten in conjunction with the nut, (for example, winter squash). Often it requires no botany classes, or much of an IQ, to possess the knowledge certain plants should be avoided. It is a revulsion imprinted so deeply in our subconscious that we shudder without knowing why. In fact much we find distasteful as adults may be due to the fact we tasted, back before we can remember. Trial and error forms a part of our wisdom.

Perhaps it is merely an extension of this trial and error testing that makes some people especially able to recognize the effects of all sorts of plants; not merely poisonous ones, but also herbs that have medicinal benefits. But I tend to think, in some cases, something more profound is involved, and some herbalists possess what we should call “a gift.”

This is not to say that others don’t learn about the nutritional benefits of foods through study and astute observation. For example a colonial mother who loved her family might notice rose hip tea made the effects of midwinter scurvy vanish. The mother wouldn’t have to know a thing about vitamin C, or have any sort of gift.  They would merely be attentive to what brightened their home and made their children and husband happy.

However some have the ability to such an uncanny degree I think it should be called a “gift”. I can say this because I recognize I don’t have it.

It hurts our egos to meet someone who is able to do things we can’t, and even has vision we lack. It is like meeting a Mozart, who makes our best efforts to compose music seem like mere jingles. However at least we can compare Mozart’s extraordinary gift to our meager gift. In other cases we have no gift at all; we are tone deaf, and can’t even compare. It is like we are color blind, and meeting someone who sees color. To some degree we can’t even believe their gift exists, because they can’t show it to us.

For example, for the first forty years of my life I didn’t believe dowsing was a real ability. I couldn’t do it myself, so I was more than skeptical. I was scornful, and called it a scam. What changed my mind? I was watching a fellow I deemed a con-artist demonstrate what I called “the so-called ability” at a country fair, and, when he was busy answering questions, I tried out his dowsing rod. As always, I had no success, but just then my three-year-old son came walking over from the cotton candy booth.  I handed him the rod and had him walk over the same spot where the man had said there was water, and the rod responded at the exact same spot.

My son didn’t seem particularly impressed; it was just a magnet to him, but I made my son walk all over the place, feeling a sense of disbelief as I watched the dowsing rod respond. Then I saw the dowser watching me with a quiet sort of smile. He asked me if the boy was my son, and when I nodded he very politely asked me to take the rod and walk about with the boy touching my elbow. For the first time in my life the rod responded, but, as soon as my son stopped touching my elbow, it didn’t work any more. When I asked for an explanation the dowser just shrugged and said, “I have no clue why that happens;  it just does.”

Only then could I broaden my narrow mind to the degree where I could accept that dowsing is a gift I cannot scientifically explain, and do not have. I don’t think there is any way I could practice, and gain that skill, either. It is just something beyond my ken. I don’t like to admit I’m lacking, but I am.

In like manner I suppose there are all sorts of other gifts people have, and I lack. In a way it seems unfair, and even undemocratic, but it is the way we were created. Once we get over our hurt feelings about being excluded, the fact others have abilities which we ourselves lack makes others more wonderful.

There is a lot of New-Age bull involved in the subject of herbs, however I do feel there are some who are not snake-oil salesmen, and who are actually gifted in that respect. If you must have a reason for this phenomenon, then perhaps it was an ability that evolved, and became especially pronounced in certain individuals, to help tribes of people subsist, and not poison themselves, as they lived nomadic lives in the wilderness, back before we had cell phones and could call poison-control-centers.

Herbalists who are especially gifted (and I am not one of them) find themselves inhabiting a peculiar No Man Land outside the precincts of both Science and Religion. They have been derided by both scientists and priests. Scientists don’t like them because they cure people without knowing the formulas involved, and priests don’t like them because they cure people without attending church. In the past herbalists have both been burned as witches and jailed for practicing medicine without a licence.

My father was a surgeon back before doctors became so distracted by people’s greedy focus on money, in the days when the focus was strictly on curing people, and you weren’t suppose to let money skew your judgement. One thing that always fascinated him were the rubes who cured people who the hospital could not.

My father himself was ruled by the strict disciplines of science and engineering; he attended both MIT and Harvard Medical School. However he was able to be broad-minded enough to admit some outside the “club”, without degrees, might be successful where doctors weren’t.

He tended to be anti-church, because the church had not been kind when doctors discovered there was such a thing as “germs”. The mentor of my father’s mentor, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, got himself in hot water when he said it was important for doctors to wash their hands between the time they amputated a limb purple with gangrene, and the time they delivered a baby. Ten years before Louis Pasteur officially “discovered” germs, Holmes simply noticed fewer mothers died of infections when midwives were called in, than when doctors were called. This irritated doctors, for Holmes was in a sense suggesting doctors were killing mothers rather than helping them,  and it irritated certain Puritan Ministers, who assumed the sufferings of childbirth were promised to woman by scripture, and healing was in the hands of God.  In fact the simple discovery of “germs” caused a schism in the Calvinist churches of New England, resulting in the birth of both the science-preferring Unitarians and the faith-preferring Christian Scientists. (But that is a story for another evening.)

The discipline my father was ruled by demanded scientific answers, but doctors are confronted by a blip in their scientific data that simply doesn’t make sense, called “the placebo effect”. In certain blind studies of incurable diseases some people were given a new wonder drug, and some were given a sugar pill called a “placebo”. In cases where the wonder drug turned out to be a failure, sometimes the “placebo” had better results, which was especially mystifying when the disease was incurable.  It seemed to hint that, because the people knew they were in a study of a “wonder drug”, their faith had triggered some latent curative ability which all humans own.

In other words, faith mattered. For this reason doctors of my father’s day were advised to project confidence even in situations where the outlook was bleak, in order to tap into the Placebo Effect, because, after all, people have faith in their doctors.

Faith was a mystery, and my Dad had his own ideas of what might be involved, and what should be investigated, (but always in a scientific manner). However herbs were less of a mystery, and my father believed herbalists might have chanced upon cures that that pharmaceutical companies were decades away from discovering. For example, country folk took willow-bark-tea for headaches and arthritis for years, even centuries, before it was discovered that the active ingredient was aspirin.

One of my father’s favorite stories involved a doctor, who also happened to be a priest, who served as a missionary in a jungle in Africa. The hot and humid climate led to many infections, and the cure at that time was to drain pus from the wound and to attempt to sterilize the wound, and to wrap it in enough gauze to keep it from being reinfected. But it often proved impossible to completely sterilize the wound, and also the patients lived lives where wounds kept being reinfected,  and the prognosis was not good for people with infections, unless they went to the local witch-doctor. This gentleman, who did not go to church, served up some vile-tasting concoction brewed in a hollow log, uttered incantations, and the infection vanished. This was very frustrating to a missionary who wanted to demonstrate “his way” was superior. Fortunately he was humble enough to confess the witch-doctor had a cure he lacked, and learned to send people to the “rival” who could cure them, even if the man didn’t go to church. (Apparently the missionary even eventually befriended the witch-doctor, and they sat on a porch and discussed religion together.) It was only years later that penicillin was discovered, and the missionary realized the vile-tasting concoction in the hollow log was likely an antibiotic, discovered long before pharmaceutical scientists discovered the “wonder drug”.

For a few years my father was in a position to influence where his hospital’s money would be spent, for “research”, and he did encourage investigations of so-called “witch doctors”. All too often the results were discouraging, for there are a lot of con-artists and snake-oil-salesmen in the world. The investigators often could not see how the “doctor’s” sleight-of-hand was preformed, when a so-called “healer” passed his hand over a cancer and then opened his hand and revealed foul-smelling stuff, but they could take a sample of the stuff and send it to a lab. It was chicken entrails. Nor could the investigators  deny the sleight-of-hand was so convincing that the “placebo effect” seemed to be especially activated. But was it science? No, it was “con-artistry”.  My father actually suffered so many experiences of this sort, seeking genuine herbal cures, that I got the impression that he eventually decided nearly all herbal cures were bunkum.

After a person has passed away you learn things, even when you think you already know all there was to know about that person, and perhaps this is especially true of our parents.

One revelation involved the fact I’d tell my Dad about New Age herbal remedies, and even offer him certain teas, all the while fully expecting him to be scornful and disgusted. He wanted me to avoid being a sucker, and to be more skeptical than I was. What I didn’t know was that he actually listened to me, and would investigate the cure I advised, after I had left. For example, I thought I had noticed a benefit from chewing “snake-root” (cone-flower, or echinacea), when it came to quickly recovering from the common cold, because it “stimulated the immune system”. I told him about snake-root when I noticed he had a bad cold. He scoffed, and deemed it a “quack-remidy”, but later I heard he had asked around, talking with other doctors he knew, and even told people that I actually “was on to something”, because, he learned, back before the discovery of antibiotics, echinacia root had been important in country doctor’s arsenals of curatives. I even found a small bag of snake-root among his belongings, after he died.

At a memorial after my father passed on, one person, while fondly remembering my Dad’s good side, mentioned he remembered Dad enabled a young woman to travel to the Amazon to study what the Indians of the interior used as herbal cures. That was back around 1960, when young women doing such a thing simply was not deemed proper by most, but Jane Goodall was just capturing the public’s imagination with her amazing study of chimpanzees. I have no idea what the trip to the Amazon achieved, but heard the woman, upon her return, expressed great gratitude towards my father for being so liberal, and making her dream come true. To hear this tale forty years later made me see a liberal lurked under the crotchety exterior of my old, conservative Dad.

In conclusion, life does tend to make us more skeptical. Indeed there are many reasons to be skeptical of “herbalists.” Unfortunately there are also many reasons to be skeptical of pharmaceutical companies, and doctors. One sad thing about the times we live in is that many people care more for money than their fellow man, and this is especially outrageous when it manifests among those with sympathetic eyebrows, who are pretending to be care-givers. A person in great pain should not have to wonder what sort of kick-back his doctor gets for prescribing a certain pill. In fact, if it is true that our Creator wants us to care for those who are downtrodden by illness, I can think of no better way to evoke the wrath of God than to make material profit the aim of medicine.

Be that as it may, greed has utterly corrupted modern medicine, and we have decended far from the simplicity of primitive nomads, whose first and foremost aim was to avoid famine, and to be healthy as they did so. Much that they could do seems uncanny to us.

For example, in the history of New England remain reports written by Puritan captives of Indian tribes, during cold winters when the Indians had to retreat scores of miles by foot, with their villages burned along with all their stored supplies of food. The Puritan captives reported with amazement that though the retreating Indians, including woman and children, had no food, they were able to scrounge enough vegetable sustenance from the snow-covered woods to feed even their captives. I doubt modern people could do as much, even travelling through the same woods in summer. The natives simply knew what to eat, and what not to eat, in their neighborhood.

This brings me back to the beginning of my post, which involved, in case you have forgotten, taking small children into the woods and telling them which berries to eat and which not to eat.

Even though I lack any natural gift, as an herbalist, I do read a lot, and have become aware there is not a plant in the forest that is not said to be a “cure”. This gives me an odd sense everything we eat is a “drug”, and therefore is something that possesses the risk of an “overdose”.  This is a bit of a joke, when dealing with benign berries like strawberries and blueberries. What could be the “overdose”?  Are they not antioxidants and wonderfully good for you? However, if you ate nothing but berries long enough, you’d likely get sick of the sight of them. Your body would tell your brain, “Eat one more berry and I’ll puke.”  (Maybe diarrhea would also be a factor.)

The fact plants have medicinal value becomes less of a joke when one reads up the ways “harmless” berries were used by herbalists of the past. On one case it even has had me tell children they are allowed to eat one “harmless” berry, and not to eat another “harmless” berry.

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The first is called “Checker-berry” locally, and the second is called “Partridge-berry” locally. They have many other local names, and the first is called “Partridge-berry” in other places, which confuses matters. Both are called “Squaw-berry” in certain places, which shows country people saw that Native-American’s were aware of the medicinal qualities each possessed. The first had a mild aspirin-like effect, and the second had some benefit I don’t claim to understand on the uterus of a women, and was widely used by Indian woman, especially as they gave birth, and also had an effect like a mild tranquilizer.

Small children do not want me to tell them what I just told you, in the above paragraph. (Not that I don’t do so, and see their faces go blank as I overload them with scientific trivia.) They prefer things simplified into a simple “yes” or “no” format.

Therefore I decided to tell them it was acceptable to eat “Checkerberries”, (because the chance of overdosing on aspirin was small in such minute doses), but they shouldn’t eat “Partridge-berries”, (because I simply didn’t know what sort of effects such a “harmless” berry might have on hormones, (though I was tempted by the prospect of slightly tranquilized children.))

In actual fact the checker-berries are also called “wintergreen” and have a pleasant minty flavor that children say is “like toothpaste.” The partridge-berries have next to no flavor at all. So it really isn’t a hard choice for children to make, even if they try the forbidden berry.

But the most interesting thing to see is how swiftly the children learn to differentiate between the two berries, which often grow together on the forest floor. Checker-berry has a star on its end, and Partridge-berry has two dots. Children have a certain pride in being able to tell the difference, and I have seen a three-year-old lift two berries up for their parents to see, and explain which berry they are allowed to eat, all the world like little professors.

And there is an insecurity parents have these days about whether their children are little professors, and academically prepared enough for kindergarten. I was advised by one elderly childcare-provider to utilize high-sounding words to describe the most ordinary childhood activity. For example, when children are fighting because one got six berries while the other only got five, explain the use of numbers as “developing math skills.”

Therefore, when we pick checker-berries we are actually studying the “volatility of essential oils”. (It is especially helpful if you can get a three-year-old to get their mouths around the word “volatility”, because then some parents have to look it up.)

“Volatility” becomes a subject because it is hard to make tea of checker-berries, as the flavor all evaporates and wafts away with the steam, and the tea itself winds up tasting like hot water. Yet this liability can be turned into an asset by placing a single checker-berry at the center of a marshmallow, and toasting it over a fire. As the marshmallow warms the evaporating wintergreen flavor permeates the gooey sweetness. Therefore do not think we are getting a sugar-fix; we are studying volatility. We allow nothing but little Einsteins at our childcare.

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I should mention that checker-berry is also called “tea-berry”. This ought to cause you to wonder, as I just explained how all the wintergreen flavor evaporates when you heat it. When you boil the water the room may smell delicious but the drink is utterly tasteless. How can a tea be made?

The question also arises concerning the making of wintergreen-flavored “birch beer”, which is (in this local) made of the essential oils found in the bark of black birch. It may be the same essential oil for all I know, for it tastes so much the same that little children, after alarming their parents by gnawing at a twig like a beaver, inform their betters in chirping voices, “Try it! It tastes like checker-berry!”

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Now of course the most scientific approach would be to distill the volatile essential oil, which is what some makers of birch beer do.

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However the above equipment looks a bit expensive, and European, and unlikely to be used by Native Americans. So we are still left with the question, how the heck did they make tea and non-alchoholic soft-drinks of checker-berries and black birch bark? Had they the help of aliens appearing in UFO’s?

I know the answer, but am going to put you in the position of a priest or scientist, facing a herbalist who can make a tea that tastes of wintergreen when you can’t, which also reduces fever and aches and pains. What is your response to this bumpkin, who has neither gone to college or to church?

Could you possibly admit they are superior, without college and without church?  Or is your first desire to burn them as a witch? Or to jail them for practicing-without-permit?

This being Halloween, let us dare step further into the subject of witchcraft, (knowing that the roots of the word “witch” come from words that mean Godly gifts mentioned in the Bible, including “prophecy”, and including even the High German word “wieh” which meant “divine or holy”, and also knowing that people-in-power tend to bad-mouth anyone they perceive as a possible threat to their power, with the most outrageous example being the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but including other awful examples such as the burning of Joan of Arc, the murder of six million Jews, and on and on and on.) However to play it safe let’s skip the bad-mouthed word “witch” and flee to the word “herbalist”, and let us focus on those who are most extremely gifted.

Let us try to see things as they do, though, because we lack their gift, we are like the color blind trying to see color. (Remember my example of the Dowser; how can we comprehend what we cannot experience.)

As I comprehend it, plants talk to you. Just as an example, let us consider the partridge-berry I mentioned earlier. Look at the diminutive blooms, as they appear in the spring. What are they telling you about the medicinal powers of the plant?

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Obviously this is two coming together to create one, indicating the plant has powers that effect those who are bearing the consequences of two coming together to create one; IE: Pregnant women.

Now that I explain it, it jumps right out at you, right? No? Me neither. I simply lack the gift. It is like being told a dowsing rod moves over water, when I can see darn well it does not, when I test it myself.

But do I dismiss the gift? Not entirely. When little children pick the berries, and see not the “star” of the checker-berry, but the twin spots left by the twin blooms:

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They hear me say, “Don’t eat that one”, even though no book calls it poisonous. So why do I forbid it? Well, it is also called “squaw-vine”, and Indian women used it a lot late in pregnancy, and, even though I haven’t a clue of what effect it had, or of its pharmaceutical powers, I figure small children likely can do without it. I don’t know for certain that it effects children’s hormones in the slightest. I am just playing it safe.

To be honest, when I walk the woods what I am most aware of how little I know, and what a wonder the Creator has made, that envelopes me like a loving embrace. Because I am humbled I am slow to scorn. Not that I don’t back away from certain herbalists, especially the dead-heads that are seemingly always seeking  more powerful hallucinogens. But I am definitely against burning witches, which seems an appropriate end to a Halloween post.

I supposed my lost sheep
Might come wandering this way
Looking for their lost shepherd
Who has long been astray.
In the orange o’er black hills
Ink wolves were seen prowling
And the twilight was filled
With the sound of their howling
When my sheep-dog came up,
Shook the hair from one eye,
And spoke with his glance,
“You’re an odd sort of guy.
If I were a man
I’d be bolder and faster
But I’m just a dog.”
“And I’m just a master”,
I replied with my voice,
“And to wander this twilight
Was never my choice.”

LOCAL VIEW –Redeeming the word “Squaw”–

The word “squaw” is a perfectly good Abenaki root-word meaning “woman”, but has been degraded by outsiders until well-meaning but wimpy people are afraid to use it, out of dread of being called racist. The irony is that the people who did the most to degrade the word were likely Mohawk, who spoke a totally different Native-American language with totally different roots, and who were hated by many Algonquin-speaking tribes even more than they hated the English, and who responded to hatred with hatred.

It is amazing to me at times the degree of hate that can come bubbling up in otherwise rational-seeming people when you stir the cold ashes of a dead past, and come across an ember of unforgiving acrimony.  People who were on the losing side of a war, and were reduced to subjugation, have a healthy response of springing back like a trampled sapling, but sometimes this response becomes unhealthy, and that occurs when it is poisoned by hatred. Germany’s response to the defeat of World War One, and the crushing penalties imposed by the victors,  is perhaps the best example.  Within twenty years of the end of The-War-To-End-All-Wars an even greater nightmare had begun.

If the Hindus and Muslims of India had remained united, their united nation of India would have become an immediate World Power upon independence, but instead their independence from England precipitated a civil war that involved the migration of 16 million and the death of a million, and two smaller, weakened nations. (I recently saw a good movie [“Viceroy’s House”] suggesting this partition was orchestrated by Churchill as a defense against Stalin’s expansion,  which is a bit absurd, considering Churchill wasn’t even in power, but which may hint outsiders weren’t entirely helpful.) It seems that when oppressed people spring back to their feet they often start wildly swinging at former foes. Seemingly there is a low part of human nature which values vengeance more than love,  leading to the tragic consequences personified by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet“.

The feud between the Algonquin and Iroquois began long before Europeans arrived, but was exploited by outsiders to the detriment of both. It was a perfect example of “United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” for if they had joined forces they might have driven the invading Europeans from their coasts, or at least held their own, but instead they battled each other to their own destruction. (An example is that, during the first battle between Algonquins and the English, the Pequot chief Sassacus fled to the the Mohawk for succor, but the Mohawk sent his dismembered head back to the English.)

In any case, it would seem unwise to look to the Mohawks to find out if the word “squaw” was derogatory, considering it was an Algonquin word. It is quite possible the Mohawk had rude words for their enemy’s wives, and some suggest “squaw” was a word related to the Mohawk word “otsiskwa [also spelled ojiskwa] meaning ‘female sexual parts'”. But this likely was a play on words, and to call “squaw” a derogatory word in fact degrades all Algonquin languages, as “squaw” is a root of many other words in many Algonquin dialects.

I’ve worked in rough settings where men are crude, and the gentle side of “gentlemen” gets laughed at, as being “prissy”. The terminology used regarding women would lead one to believe such men are incapable of loving women, though they beyond doubt do. For example, I’ve heard women referred to as “bitches” and “cunts” by fellows who I later see buying flowers for their wives. The reason for the crudeness seems (to me) to not to be based on heartlessness, as much as it is on a need to be tough and callused because everyday experience is brutal. Someone must clean the sewers; someone must stitch the people mangled by car crashes; someone must slaughter the cows for our hamburgers and leather purses, and people who face crude days develop a crude demeanor.

In like manner I suppose some women develop a demeanor so shrill it makes your skin crawl like fingernails clawing over a chalkboard. They often are called suffragettes, or feminists, (or femiNazis), and they far too often gain the advantage in a debate by being so nasal and nasty that people quit the discussion in disgust. People respond to them by muttering, “Who needs this crap?” but later regret the surrender, because they discover a law has been passed.

In my time I have run up against such nasty behavior for deeds as innocent as holding a door open for a woman. I was cussed out royally, and told I was a male chauvinistic pig. Should I have allowed the door to swing shut, as a woman, (or any person), approached it, holding two armloads of groceries?

Actually I see such nasty behavior, now that I’m older, as an example of how the oppressed, springing back to their feet, swing wildly at the nearest chin. However, after being oppressed by such feminism for decades, I too am now springing back to my feet, and I too have a desire to swing at their less than manly chins.

Another example dates back from the days when I enjoyed cigarettes. The words, “Could you please not smoke” may not look militant, written down, but when spoken in a certain tone of voice they are the opposite of civility, and rather than provoking a civil response made me want to light two cigarettes at once.

Yet another example involves our various ways of describing the differences in social groups, involving skin color and nationality. In my time a dark-skinned person was called, by whites, a “Nigger”, a “Negro”, “Colored”, an “Afro-American”, an “African-American”, and a “Black”, and after that I gave up trying.  No matter what term I switched to, I’d get screeched at.

I recall getting blasted one time for saying my father had befriended a “China-man”, by a person who objected to the word “China-man.” “What do you mean by that!” the woman exploded, leaning in with both hands fisting. Cowering backwards, I whimpered, “A man from China?”

Cowering in this manner does get old, after a decade or two. At first you think you may placate the enraged by being really, really polite, but seemingly it just makes you an enabler. You feel like  Chamberlain trying to appease Hitler. You try to display the gentle side of being a gentleman, but only get snarled at, and also laughed at by the tough guys, who have their own word for your civility: “Pussy-whipped.”

Finally you just can’t stand it any more. You wheel around. You stride forward. And you…..basically whisper, “There is nothing wrong with the word “squaw”. It means, “woman”, and there is nothing wrong with the word “woman”.  If you can’t respect the word “squaw” then you likely can’t respect the word “woman”. Yet I have and I do respect women, no matter what they call me. The disrespect?  It exists in you, and it is due to your festering hate, and your wish for vengeance. For decades I have been respectful, and you have not. My conclusion is this: You are not the cure for bigotry and sexism. Instead the sad fact is that you are closer to being the cause.

LOCAL VIEW —Cranberries—

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Cranberries have been a part of New England history since Squanto introduced them to the Pilgrims, likely as a survival food with medicinal qualities, because the Pilgrims were in such poor health. I was told that one reason that cranberry sauce was served with turkey every November was to remember Squanto, and the first Thanksgiving.

The process of growing cranberries has been mechanized, and they are seldom picked wild any more. They may also lack some of the nutritional and medicinal value they once possessed, through mass production in artificial bogs. Therefore I was glad to come across a wild patch while hiking with the children.

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It is interesting to introduce small children to Cranberries, as they are very sour. I tend to fall back on an old ploy, which is to munch away, all the time telling them they can’t have any, because it is a “grown-up food”. I explain it is “way too sour” and “you won’t like it.”  Often this is enough to get the more disobedient children surreptitiously nibbling, when they think I’m not looking, while the majority set up a chorus of “Please let us try it. Puh-leese!” (Of course, if I told them to try it and that it was good for them, they’d refuse.)

Finally, with a great display of reluctance, I relent and allow them to try a single berry, urging them to spit it out if it is too sour.  And in fact most do spit the berry out, but there are always a few who bravely munch away, even pretending it isn’t all that sour. (And I suppose, to certain taste-buds, the sourness may actually be less. I know that broccoli is very bitter to some children, but not bitter at all to others.)

I exclaim with the children over how sour the berries are, making faces and squirming in a manner that I imagine conveys the taste of a lemon, yet all the while I continue to pick and munch the fruits. You’d be surprised how quickly the children pick a second berry and give the fruit a second chance. By the end nearly every child is munching away.

I suppose it just demonstrates how effective reverse psychology is.

Cranberries often can be found even in the winter, if the first freeze is fast and lasting. They can be popped into a freezer in a similar manner, or dried. They are a good winter survival food because they have vitamin C which prevents winter scurvy, and also manganese which assists the immune system with antioxidant properties.  There are also various claims about cranberry’s ability to prevent and even cure urinary infections.

However I think its greatest value is that it teaches children sour fruits can be palatable, and everything doesn’t need to be drenched in sugar and corn syrup to be edible.Cranberry 7 IMG_5627

 

LOCAL VIEW –Tilted–

One job assigned to me as a teenager, when I first ventured outside of the suburbs into the country and attempted to be a country boy by chewing upon a straw, was “ditching the pasture”. The pasture had initially been ditched 218 years earlier, but the ditch had a tendency to fill in, and therefore one was expected to walk slowly down the ditch with a round-nosed, long-handled shovel, digging the wads of leaves and muck that were impeding the drainage.  I actually didn’t mind the job, as I was always playing in brooks as a boy, and this wan’t much different.

The ditch basically took a shallow intermittent stream,  a brook that only flowed when snow melted and after torrential downpours, and straightened it while lowering it down roughly two feet. This drained the pasture and allowed timothy and clover to grow, rather than the sour marshy grasses cows don’t much like. It increased the value of the land, and in some pastures took a brook that dried out in the summer and put it down deep enough to where it flowed all year long, and therefore took a brook that held no fish and created a habitat for secretive brook trout, especially where sod overhung the banks a little.

Then, around 1970, the concept of “wetlands” as being an especially valuable landscape took hold. Even a reeking fen was seen as an environmental Eden,  and ditching pastures became a criminal activity, in the eyes of some university types. They decide to educate farmers, and the old-time farmers told them to go to hell. Next they decided to go through legislators and lobbyists, and had better luck.

Don’t get me wrong. Some wetlands, especially salt marshes, are tremendously important to the larger ecosystem, and are lush and brimming with life. Destroying them dramatically reduces the catch of fish in nearby coastal waters. (On the other hand, creating wetlands by damming rivers also reduces the catch of fish.) But an intermittent stream through a farmer’s pasture is not the same thing.

In any case while ditching the pasture, which I continued to do even after it made me a criminal, I had time to contemplate how an activity which is deemed saintly one generation is deemed devilish the next. I also had time to gaze about at the geology of New England, and study the ecology, and noticed there was no norm, unless flux was the norm. Glaciers had scoured the landscape clean of topsoil, and then a progression of vegetation pursued the retreating ice. Along with the vegetation came beavers, who were constantly deforesting areas and creating wetlands, and then deserting their dams when they ran out of food, which caused ponds to became meadows when the dams broke, and later meadows became groves of poplar and birches, which attracted a new generation of beavers. Also men came north even as the ice retreated, (a friend of mine found a flint spear-head, with the flint originating from Ohio,) and they tended to burn the underbrush in forests to make hunting easier. So I figured the Puritan farmers who first ditched pastures were no more dramatic a change than other changes. Change was the norm; any level achieved was soon tilted.

Locally it wasn’t so much the environmentalists who stopped the ditching of pastures as it was a cultural change that made all the hard work involved in farming seem less worthwhile. People found ways to support themselves working only eight hours a day, and preferred laying indoors watching TV, and the ditches began to fill in, even as the old pastures grew over, first becoming what the locals called “puckerbrush”, and then becoming woods. And then, rather unexpectedly, the trees began to all die, or to tilt and fall over. (Sometimes a grove of dead trees indicated beavers had returned and flooded an area, but beavers don’t dam intermittent brooks.)

What was happening was that the water table was inching upwards as the ditches filled in, and the roots of the trees were either drowned, or the deeper roots that anchor a tree down were killed and the tree was only held up by a mat of very shallow roots. These roots were not enough, and in a strong wind the tree tilted, (sometimes remaining alive.)

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I like investigating the ripped-up roots of such tilted trees, because you learn about the local subsoil, and a thing or two about the post-glacier geology, and sometimes find an artifact or two. Lastly, though you may doubt this, we have a “little people” who live here in New Hampshire, just as leprechauns live in Ireland, and sometimes if you look under roots you can meet them.

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One way to befriend these little people is to find a red shelf-mushroom that lives up on dead trees, but the way to get your hands on these mushrooms is to find a tree that has tilted and fallen all the way down.

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Once these mushrooms are down they continue to grow, but are now sideways, and it makes no sense to continue to grow the way they were growing, with their bottoms facing sideways, so the mushrooms are wise enough to, within a fortnight, make an adjustment.

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Because the mushroom has wisely adjusted, when the time comes for it to release its spores, some are not trapped in sideways-facing, rain-sopped pores, but face down, and can be sheltered and kept dry and properly dispersed.

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If even mushrooms can adjust to a tilt of ninety degrees, it seems to me higher forms of life ought to able to adjust as well. It also seems to me that certain environmentalists, who seem to imagine nature exists in a steady-state, and that all changes are evils brought about by mankind, are themselves unwilling to change and are themselves unable to adjust to any tilting. Does this make them a lower form of life than a mushroom?

Long ago a lubber, (namely me),
Got on a ship, and sailed into a storm
Where I lost my sense of up. Misery
Was mine, as my stomach took a form
That was mostly inside out, but I had
To man the helm or else my problems
would be over. Tempting. I felt so bad
That dying didn’t seem low as the phlegms
My empty stomach heaved, as stinging spray
Salted wincing eyes that searched the skies
For something level, something that would stay
Flat, but all tilted. But the biggest surprise
Was that when I was safely ashore, then
I yearned to go out and be tilted again.

ARCTIC SEA ICE –Quiet Changes–

The thickness maps produced by the Naval Research Lab have switched to a new “product”, which makes the sea-ice in the central arctic look thinner. (Old product, October 17, to left; New product, October 21, to right.)

I’ll skip my usual tirade about how these “improvements” always seem to make the ice look thinner, except to say that, just eyeballing the maps, it looks like the sea-ice became three feet thinner overnight. However I will confess to being irked over how this change makes it very difficult to compare the conditions this year with last year’s.

Below is the last comparison I will be able to make, using old-style maps. 2016 is to the left and 2017 to the right.

Three things jump out at me. First, the Laptev Sea has been quicker to skim over with ice this autumn, which tends to suggest the East Siberian cold-pool means business this year. As Siberia tends to be the biggest contributor to nasty cold, watch for which direction the cold air aims. For me in the USA a cross-polar-flow or a flow across Bering Strait tends to be worst. For Europe, east winds bring the cruelty of Mordor. For China, winds straight from the north are cruelest. Best for all concerned is when Siberia drains out into the Pacific, though that may cool waters and be a case of delaying the inevitable.

Second, the waters north of Alaska are slower to freeze this fall, which may extend the delightful autumn parts of North America are having, to the south (though I suppose northern California is yearning for winter rains, after their wild fires.)

Third, a wrong-way flow in Fram Strait has prevented sea-ice from coming down the east coast of Greenland. This actually keeps sea-ice up in the central arctic, but does tend to make the “extent” graph look lower. (The long-range suggests the south winds in Fram Srait will change to north winds, and the flow will resume.) In any case, “extent” is well above last year:

DMI5 1021 osisaf_nh_iceextent_daily_5years_en

Apparently, though the NRL maps have the sea-ice abruptly three feet thinner, the extent is greater. (I wonder if NRL realizes that this “correction” of their maps is an admission that their previous maps were seriously flawed. If so, someone should be so kind as to pat the back of my hand and apologize, for I sure did take some heat when I very politely suggested some flaws were visible, when I compared the view seen by satellites with the view seen by lying eyes through floating arctic cameras. The only problem is that lying eyes didn’t see ice thinner, but rather more widespread, and growing at times satellites suggested it was melting.) (Does this explain why they have cut the funding for cameras?)

Things are quiet at the moment, up in the arctic. The big high-pressure towards Siberia has weakened, and the flow it brought up through Fram Strait has fueled a weak version of “Ralph”, (the low pressure that has predominated for over a year). The above-normal temperatures that bisected the Pole are now chilling in the growing dark. Without new streams of mild air from the south the Pole simply has to get colder, with no sunshine.

Though things are currently quiet, we are actually midst a whiplash of sorts, as the Pacific cools. Over at his blog at Weatherbell (week free trial available) Joe Bastardi produced a clear comparison of how the sea-surface anomalies have changed, from above-normal to below-normal. 2015 Super-El-Nino to left; 2017 La Nina to right.)

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Notice it is not merely cooler off Peru, but also off west Australia and even to a degree off southwest South Africa. Usually this is indicative of east-to-west winds increasing. Notice how the warmer water is pushed to east Australia. (For the moment I’m ignoring other factors, which in the past I have called the “bathtub-slosh” and the “toothpaste squeeze”.)

Often a strong El Nino is followed by a strong La Nina, and the fact this didn’t occur after the 2015 Super-El-Nino demanded some sort of explanation. The most obvious difference in the current situation was, in my eyes, the “Quiet Sun.” To me it seemed possible that less energy from the sun might mean there was less energy for the east-to-west winds. Therefore the La-Nina responce to the strong El Nino was held in check, though the components (which we don’t understand all that well) were likely all in place and champing at the bit. All it took was for the sun to get a bit “noisy” and the La Nina was unleashed. But now the sun is getting quiet again. After a series of spotless days we are seeing the sunspots that have rotated all the away around the sun are returning to view diminished.

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A lot of “ifs” are involved. “If” the sun remains quiet, will the La Nina lose its power? “If” the La Nina wimps out, will the tropics warm towards an El Nino? And so on. Likely it is a good time to avoid making predictions, and better to sit back and study.

In the short term, it does seem things are moving in a cooler direction. It takes a while for such “lagged” effects to reach the Pole, but I am expecting to see short-term changes reach the north after the first half of winter, and foolishly stated the date we’d see the change (likely to a zonal flow and very cold Pole, with fewer arctic outbreaks) would be February 13. (That gives me time to pack and leave town if I’m wrong.)

Stay Tuned.

LOCAL VIEW —Stafford’s Lane—

It is a dry autumn, and tramping dry woods is wonderful, especially when the weather is mild, (provided you wear loud clothing and sing “I am not a deer” constantly). I have been continuing my study of the deserted farmland, focusing in on the brief period when this town existed as a farming town of the original Puritan sort, before the craze for building mills hit this area. The town was settled in 1750 and likely only existed as a purely farming town for around a quarter century, before people realized that all the rushing streams represented untapped power.

Though in some ways I am of an old and inbred family, dating back to the Pilgrims, one “newer” branch immigrated to America around 1830 due to the mill-building craze. Lore has it the immigrant’s last name may have been “McDoogle”, but he changed it to “Miller” to avoid possible prosecution, as he was recruited from England because he knew “secrets” involving English mills. (It sounds like an early example of industrial espionage to me.) He apparently had a thick Scottish accent, which makes me wonder what he fled in Scotland that wound him up down in England. Then he skipped England. Perhaps he was a bit difficult to get along with. He was a strict Presbyterian who called Christmas Trees “Damned Papist Idolatry.” His wife died shortly after he arrived, and when he remarried his second wife was not of the better Puritan families, but a somewhat mysterious woman known as “Miss Eagle”.  There are murmurs she might have been an Abenaki Indian, which would mean the “newer” branch of the family tree was grafted with the “oldest.”

I bring this up to show the sort of chaos involved in dramatic economic changes, which seemed to clout New Englanders on a regular basis. Those who portray New England as a sort of quaint and changeless place don’t understand the details of our history. Perhaps in Europe there are places when life was lived as it always had been lived, for century after century, (or perhaps not.) America, as far as I can tell, has always been a more dynamic place. Maybe people dream they can “settle down”, but there is an ongoing flow to life that sweeps them off their feet. In the late 1700’s the disruption was the profitability of water power. In the late 1980’s the disruption was the profitability of computers.

As an old man I can’t say I approve of disruptions. I like things the way they were, and it annoys me to have ask my granddaughter how to turn on the newfangled radio in our new car. Life is starting to pass me by, which makes sense, as I can’t run as fast as I used to. I long for that which is lasting, because I tire of learning new ways only to find they are outdated when the newest cell phone comes out.

I find a sort of solace in tramping in the woods, and seeing the ruins of farms that were built by men who obviously thought what they built would be lasting. They left a very real signature on the landscape, whereas the words I type could vanish in a blink, if this computer crashes.

I recently was exploring an abandoned road when I came across a side road that doesn’t even appear on old maps, “Stafford’s Lane.”  It likely was a cart-path useful only to a farmer,  cutting across a ditched pasture. Now it cuts through swampy woods, in what is officially called “wetlands”,  a designation which has prevented the maintenance of the draining ditch, and has turned perfectly good pasture into a mosquito-breeding swamp, during wetter summers, and also killed a large area of trees. Last summer was dry, so even the mosquitoes died, as the “wetlands” became parched soil. This spring, when water returned, it was a most peculiar “wetlands”, for where every other patch of water held a chorus of frogs, this area was totally silent. It was a wetlands without frogs, without fish, without ducks or herons or diving beetles or whirligigs or any wildlife associated with wetlands. There were no pond lilies or pitcher plants or cattails. It was wetlands because some bureaucrat designated it so, and claimed it was “environmentally vibrant”. I think the old-time farmers knew better, when they designated it a “ditched pasture”.

As I walked the lane I noticed a lot of stone had been moved, and that, straight ahead, the lane seemed paved with very big, flat boulders.

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While I might be able to shift the stones of the wall to the right, the flagstones were more than I could have budged even as a young man. (To the left, upstream in the photo above, is the frogless swamp that was bone dry at this time, last year.) As I passed I could not help but pause and look back:

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That is a heck of a big rock to move, just to drive a cart over a miry patch of pasture. I walked back to think about how I might have moved such a stone, back in 1775. Oxen? Block and tackle? And then I looked past the stone and downstream.

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I clambered over the stone wall, and once I was downstream looking back upstream, I became aware more work was involved than I originally assumed.

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As I looked at the amazing amount of stone men moved, before they discovered TV sets, it occurred to me the farmer must have understood some years the pasture would be wet, and some years bone dry. It also occurred to me that cows need to drink. Therefore a smart farmer would not only ditch a pasture, but also create a dam to hold back some of the water on dry years. Moving the stone was therefore an example of human laziness. The farmer did not want to lug buckets of water to his cows, and therefore it made economic sense to lug some stones one time, so he wouldn’t need to lug buckets of water a thousand times.

Still,  the amount of stone moved by people if the past seemed amazing to me. Likely the movers were members of a single, large farm family, improving their single eighty-acre farm. They also likely thought they were making an improvement that would help future farmers on the same farm. I doubt they understood that with the coming of mills their way of life would become old-fashioned, and the farm they worked so hard to clear from wilderness and improve would be turning back to forest within the lifetimes of their grandchildren.

As I thought these somber thoughts I climbed back towards Stafford’s Lane, and startled a frog, who leaped into the pool reflecting sky in the above picture. It made me smile. The frogs were coming back. They were moving upstream, like settlers moving out into the Great Plains in covered wagons to claim homesteads and start farms in the years before the Dust Bowl. Did not the frogs not know that the wetlands they moved up into might again become bone dry, in the future?

Do we know as much, as we pursue our modern aspirations?

These words I write are written on sand,
Like the hearts young lovers stroke upon beaches
With innocent fingers; valentines grand
But fleeting, as the surging tide teaches
All of us that castles crumble, and change
Will wrinkle beauty’s skin, silver her hair,
And make familiar landscapes look so strange
That we can be home and not know we are there.

Ever new is our world. We can’t go back
For our goal is not here, but far higher.
Our aim to settle is really a loaded pack
On our shoulders. Turtles should inspire
For their homes move, as do mice and men
And frogs, when sudden droughts transform their fen.

LOCAL VIEW —Becoming Brazilian—

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Well, I survived the wedding, and my daughter is now married to a handsome young man from Brazil. In a way this now makes me Brazilian, for Brazil is now part of my family.

That is how love and marriage works:  Our horizons are expanded. In a sense it is the opposite of what selfishness imagines. Selfishness thinks that the way to gain is to hoard, but discovers such clinging only gains the hollowness of a miserly life. In Love one gives, and discovers that rather than poorer one is richer. As horizons expand consciousness expands.

If course, if my mother could only see me now, she might suggest I’m far too old to be running around expanding my consciousness. It is beneath the dignity of a gentleman of my advanced years. And I might even be inclined to agree with the ghostly mother rolling in her grave, but all walls fall, when love wants in.

This expansive benefit of family values is actually one thing Internationalists fail to grasp, when they promote a world without borders.  They see any sort of nation as walls that people hide behind, and assume walls make such people racist and/or fascist. Because a family is in a sense a small nation, they even can dislike the fidelity of monogamous marriage, seeing it as preventing “free love”.  In actual fact the “walls” created by the discipline of marriage-vows create a lattice which holds love’s tendrils up, and allows it to flourish.

Another good symbol is the banks of a river, which form levees that channel and direct the water. Without banks a river becomes a swamp. In other words, levees symbolize discipline, which allows you to get somewhere.

There is of course the danger of discipline getting out of hand, in which case the levees actually become dams, and stop up the flow of the water. Too much discipline without any love results in a sort of spiritual desertification, and one winds up as stranded as the fishermen of the Aral Sea.

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Internationalists have long looked down their noses at family values, assuming an arid fate awaited those who built mini-nations, but when I look at Syrian refugees I think most would have rather stayed home, and that many only became refugees because international influences totally destroyed their homes.

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While I admit my family values haven’t made my life altogether tidy, and my study is currently a mess, none of my messes are as bad as the internationalist’s mess, pictured above.

Furthermore I will also confess that as I became old and crusty, and my goal became to be a character and a cantankerous anachronism, I didn’t approve of undisciplined behavior. I urged my daughters to find some nice, local fellow. So, of course, they didn’t.

Lastly I’ll confess I was in no mood for all the work of a wedding. It seemed a long run for a very short slide. The actual ceremony only takes fifteen minutes. Why string up lights? Especially when it involves an old fellow like myself teetering atop a fifteen foot step ladder, and I might break my neck? And besides the set-up, there is the clean-up. People love to come for dinner, but few stay to do dishes. And so on and so forth. I could go on for pages.

But then I became an absolute hypocrite, at the actual event. I got all choked up walking my daughter to the groom,  and during the reception wine had me beaming and in love with everyone, and even dancing like a fool.

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Even the next morning, when I crawled out of bed fully expecting a return of reality punctuated by cynical despair, I found myself walking about in a smiling afterglow, (helped by the fact I discovered saints had done much of the clean-up before I awoke.)

One of the nicest experiences was talking to my daughter’s new father-in-law, who had flown up from Brazil and who didn’t speak English. I spoke no Portuguese, but his daughter acted as interpreter. As we talked we discovered we shared the same family values, and the same love of small churches, and compared our experiences in the modern world. We discovered we agreed about internationalists, and laughed and joked together like long-lost  friends.

Once again I likely am shocking my liberal friends, who assume my family values automatically make me a xenophobic racist. Blame the wine, or blame the unexpectedly warm October weather, but it seemed to me that, during the reception, heaven peeked through the veils of our sad, old earth.

The weather was all wrong for October
And fallen leaves scampered scarlet down streets
On warm winds. Frost refused to grow white fur,
And my garden was full of August’s treats.

I shook my head. There are times I don’t mind
Being wrong, and don’t mind when my forecasts fail,
For I’m faithless, and therefore cannot find
What faith finds: A Light which makes shadows quail.

Once I trusted, but saw both others and my self
Break the trust, and learned to expect the worst.
Faith seemed foolish, so I booked it on a shelf
And distrust became the act I rehearsed
For the play of winter winds, but weather was wrong
And young lovers sang a far better song.