Sunday, March 28, 2010

March 28 will be a bit of a catch-up journal. Last Thursday, I was finally able to get a propane delivery. The driver had me take him up to the house first to check out the road, and he thought it would be no problem. It wasn’t, and an hour later I had two full tanks, 100 gallons in the smaller tank and 400 gallons in the larger one. I felt rich beyond measure, at least in propane, and I even left the heat up slightly. Valley Propane was not able to connect both tanks at this point but they will come out later to accomplish that.
Looking at my flowering chart shows this to be a very later spring, but I can see the leaves of purple deal nettle and henbit, and they may be flowering today in the pasture. I did see some cut-leaved toothwort flowering yesterday.
Last weekend, I had Mike help me change the solar fence to cover just the orchard. Mike did the heavy digging for the new poles and in a couple of hours we had it set up correctly. We replaced the solar battery and I when I turned it on on Wednesday, it worked fine. A few weeks before I had fertilized all the fruit trees and I am hoping for some decent fruit this year. I closed the shutoff on the 250 gallon water tank and after Friday’s rain, I have about 50 gallons in it. That should be full shortly and that should be enough for 8 fruit trees.
The last few days I have been charging my solar batteries again, since they were down to 1150 (perfect would be 1270) even though the new gauge shows that they are 100%. I have gotten them to 1235, but I am going to call Bryan this week to see if we can reset the gauge.
My didymo article is almost done; all that’s left is a quote from the DEC spokesman and I will send the article off to Kaatskill Life next week. It is a pretty dull piece (didymo is an invasive algae that can significantly deteriorate trout streams) but informative and the DEC people are glad I am doing it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

March 26 and Spring is still getting here. Coltsfoot is peaking but I have seen little else. There is speedwell and a cress flowering in the pasture but the major burst is being held back by the wet and cooler weather.
My knee is getting worse so I have ordered another shot of Syn-Visc One and I hope to get it within a couple of weeks. I found out I got the first shot in July and it has lasted till March so that is pretty good.
This morning I decided to charge up the batteries (down to 66%, which is much lower than recommended) and when I went to start the generator it was seized. That was bad news so I called All Seasons (where it was purchased) and spoke to one of the servicemen. He suggested talking the spark plug out and see if that freed the engine up and if that didn’t work then to take off the starter cord mechanism to see if it was broken. After taking out the spark plug, the flywheel would still only move in the wrong direction and the starter cord was working fine. I called All Seasons back and they said they would have to look at it in the shop so I set up a time for them to pick it up in the afternoon. Not having a generator would be a big problem right now since my knee was so bad. I have a backup generator up in the shed near my cabin but getting it down would require Mike’s help, and I haven’t used it in a number of years. I decided to take out the spark plug again and this time I got the flywheel to go in both directions. I put everything back together and in a few minutes 21 amps were heading for the batteries. I called All Seasons to cancel the pickup and went to work on some other projects which didn’t strain my knee.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Another essay, this time about teaching writing:

In my twenty five years of teaching upper level college writing, I have found that most professors approach the task in two opposing ways. The first assumes that the student has a basic desire and reading background to make an argument about something. The second assumes that only through some level of focused scholarship can a student prepare herself for developing a position on something.
The division starts as soon as students are introduced to critical articles, often in elementary school and certainly by high school. There is an immediate sense that the critical piece has a higher value than anything the student might come up with.
By the time students reach college, they have been subjected to this division for long enough to believe that their own thoughts are secondary to what a skilled critic can say. In most cases this is true but the question is whether that knowledge is useful in developing the student’s ability to think or write on his or her own.
Freshman readers are often theme oriented and offer opposing arguments on a number of issues, including abortion, the death penalty, global warming, etc. The articles are usually well written and informative and for most freshmen they work well enough, educating students about a wide range of topics. However, by the time the students begin writing their papers, there is little original they can say since the articles they have read have taken almost all the interesting positions. If this were to stop right after freshman year, I think it wouldn’t be that much of a problem. But that is not the case. For most students they have been so trained to respect what they have read that they do little more than regurgitate an unappealing mixture of various sources.
My own experience in graduate school is illustrative. I had the good fortune to study with Alfred Kazin, then a Distinguished Professor at CUNY. Kazin was remarkable for many things, but what I most appreciated about him was his profound love of books like Huck Finn or The Sound and the Fury.
In Kazin’s course on modern American novel, I decided to write my paper on William Faulkner’s Light in August, a troubling novel about racial identity. As I read the novel I was struck by the examples of movement in the text, and thought that motion was an important focusing and thematic element in the book. I worked hard on my paper, quoting extensively from the text, and produced an effort I was proud of. When Kazin handed it back, it had an “A,” on it, with only the comment that he would have approached it from the point of view of stillness. I didn’t give his comment much thought until I shortly found out that Kazin had many years earlier written a classic essay titled “Stillness in Light in August.” I was surprised and as I read his essay, I easily realized how much more fluent and insightful Kazin’s essay was but more importantly, I understood that if I had read his essay before writing mine, then I would never have written mine. And I would have missed the chance for a rewarding intellectual endeavor.
That is the problem with a student doing too much scholarship before attempting to write out his or her approach to a paper. Most of the rewarding topics have been handled by much more competent writers, so the student is forced to try to find a somewhat original position even if it is forced and narrow. At Radford, our senior seminar students have to come up with an extensive annotated bibliography before they even decide on a topic. This seems remarkably backward and often a waste of time. If students annotate 25 articles on Kate Chopin’s Awakening, then all too often the argument they might make, an argument that would be challenging and interesting to them, has already been taken.
I advise students to simply read the novel or primary text and in the course of several writing explorations, find out what they think about the works they have read. Students almost always will come up with something interesting and original to themselves. When they have a pretty solid draft of what they want to say, then I tell them to do their research. At this point they have a decent idea of what they want to say, and they can easily choose the relevant and irrelevant articles. Research at this point can help develop their argument but since it is secondary to their own ideas, it will allow them to further their own points without feeling that they are borrowing someone else’s ideas. That seems to be a very fruitful path to follow and I wish it were employed more in our upper level courses.

Monday, March 15, 2010

I started back from Atlanta on Friday, March 12, stopping in Charlotte for the evening. On Saturday morning, with the sun a welcome companion, I went for a bike ride and spotted several wild flowers, including Henbit, Purple Dead Nettle, Persian Speedwell, and Ground Ivy.
As I drove up I-77, I checked the weather in Blacksburg and the forecast was for rain. Luckily, the precipitation held off and when I got to the hollow, I found that the farm road and my road were ice free. One little patch of snow remained up by the house where Mike had dumped an enormous amount, but the rest of the hollow was clear.
On Sunday morning, I went into the greenhouse and my screen covers had stymied the moles or voles. I had spinach and lettuce up, but the sugar snap peas might have to be replanted. I unloaded my truck and decided to caulk the inside of the house. There were a number of gaps in the caulking (typical in a log house) but I had them all fixed in about an hour. I went outside and caulked some more, and overall the lower part of the house looked okay. I would have to get Mike or someone else to help me caulk the upper parts, since there was no way I could handle my big ladder by myself. I walked up to the orchard and trimmed around the fruit trees and on my way back to the house I noticed that the bright yellow flowers of Coltsfoot were blooming, a sure sign of spring.
I drove into town to go for a walk with Rob near his house, and there were no wild flowers to be found. There were several large patches of snow left and the walk was invigorating if chilly.
When I returned home, I still had a couple of hours left so I spread some organic fertilizer on the fruit trees by the house and walked down to the orchard and fertilized the rest. I had a great crop of cherries on one tree last year but a bear got to them and broke several of the branches. Perhaps I will get a share this spring.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

This will be another essay entry, one that I should have blogged during the severe winter I just went through. It should still have some interest.

There are rare movies that entertain and enlighten. Up is certainly one of them. It opens with the brief sketch of the life of Carl Fergussan, and his wife Ellie. As children the two had vowed to visit Paradise Falls, an almost mythical place located in the Land of the Lost somewhere in South America. Unfortunately, life intervenes as the youngsters grow up, marry, are unable to have their own offspring, and Ellie passes away, leaving Carl to grow into a old man living in his multicolored house while massive construction projects go on around him. Carl’s hero from youth was C.F. Muntz, a man who had explored Paradise Falls in his dirigible, the Spirit of Adventure, and Carl still longs to complete his promise to Ellie to visit Paradise Falls.
The real adventure begins when Carl is about to be forced into a retirement home, but instead he takes off, house and all, by inflating thousands of colorful helium balloons. Of course he eventually makes it to Paradise Falls, aided by a young stowaway named Russell.
It is clear that on one level, the trip to Paradise Falls is the adventure of Carl’s life, and when he finally lands his house above the falls, after encountering Kevin (a huge and quirky female bird) and a talking dog named Doug, there is genuine relief in the audience.
But the movie takes an interesting turn when Kevin is captured by Muntz—who needs it to prove that he didn’t lie about its existence to the civilized world. Carl just wants to live out his life at Paradise Falls, and refuses to help Russell rescue Kevin. As Carl sits in his favorite chair he looks once again at Ellie’s adventure book, which had an empty section in it titled What I am going to do. For years Carl felt the disappointment of that blank section but now he sees that Ellie has filled in the rest of the book with loving scenes from their life together. With this revelation Carl is now free to go help Russell rescue Kevin and return her to her babies.
The question then is which of Carl’s experiences is the real “adventure.” Obviously in a traditional sense, the adventure begins when he takes off in his house, but in a different and perhaps deeper sense, his adventure begins when he first meets Ellie and their ensuing relationship.
The dictionary definition of adventure is broad enough to include almost anything with risk but to me the key words are hazardous and excitement. Focusing on these parts of the definition, Carl’s adventure is his journey to Paradise Falls and his rescue of Kevin. Marriage doesn’t really fit the definition of adventure, and in life I think that is also true.
I have never climbed Mt. Everest or kayaked the Grand Canyon, but in the past I have done some exciting and dangerous things. I have kayaked Freighttrain rapids on the Coontookcook, I have almost been swept away by the ocean when I miscalculated the tides on the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island, and I have climbed Mount Rundle in the Canadian Rockies three times. I think my fourth attempt at Rundle most clearly defines what an adventure is rather that something more mundane.
People have died climbing Rundle and the recommendation is to go with several people and to bring ropes. My first attempt was solo, the next two with a friend, and the fourth with my partner Tracy. I wanted to show her the remarkable views and to feel the sense of achievement in reaching the summit. For the first three miles or so, the route is a meandering trail through lodgepole pine forest. But after that the path ascends quickly and there are points you have to pull yourself up. A few years before, in my early forties, I had torn a calf playing touch football, and when we got to the more challenging section and I had to put a lot of pressure on the calf, I got worried. The calf felt like it was about to pop and after a few minutes, I told Tracy I couldn’t continue. I was upset and a little embarrassed, but if I were to tear my calf up on Rundle, it would be a real mess, surely involving rescue personnel. What Tracy and I had had was a hike, not an adventure. Certainly there is nothing wrong with a hike, but to call it an adventure is a misuse of the word.
The first time I ran Freighttrain Rapids on the Contoocook was also an adventure. This class 4 plus rapid was heralded as one of the best in New England, and it proved so. I went with three other people, split into two small yellow rafts, and as we approached I told my friends to let our raft go first. Having done very well on the earlier class 2-3 section, they decided to lead and immediately were flipped over and had to swim a good chunk of a very difficult river. Donald and I were a little more fortunate as the first hole didn’t flip us, it simply swallowed us. Our raft was completely underwater with Donald in front and me in the back, the turbulent water cascading over my head. After a few seconds, Donald turned to me and asked what we should do. I said that one of us had to get out and he responded, “Not me.” I had no choice but to flip over the side and get sucked into the hydraulic. It spun me around and around and I knew I would drown if I didn’t act quickly. I pushed off the bottom, freeing myself from the hole and swam down to Donald who was not far ahead. He pulled me in, and I paddled to shore. Though Donald had lost his paddle, we decided to finish the rapid, which we did successfully. That was an adventure, at least for both of us. Perhaps for others, only class 10 rapids on the Colorado are adventuresome, but Freighttrain was enough for me.
So to me an adventure has to have some threat to life, but that by itself doesn’t make it an adventure. The scariest and most life threatening event I have experienced started in late October of 2007, when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, had major surgery, then five months of chemotherapy. I still worry that the cancer will come back, and I get tested regularly, but not one moment of the experience was an adventure.
The idea of doing something for money is also worth considering. When I worked for a ship repair firm in Port Newark, New Jersey, I once had to be hoisted 40 feet up on the hook of a large crane to make the final cut on the top of a control tower which was held by another crane. The danger was that once I made my cut, the tower would swing toward me and knock me off my precarious perch. Holding on with one hand and using the oxyacetylene torch with the other, I made the cut and watched as the tower swung toward me and stopped a few inches away. What I did was genuinely dangerous but I was being paid to do the work (even though I volunteered for that specific task) so I am not sure that was an adventure. I’d imagine that even the guides on Mount Everest don’t consider the 40th climb with some tourist who has forked out a hundred thousand dollars to be particularly adventuresome. It is absolutely difficult and dangerous but it is still simply a job.
Many people I have spoken with disagree with my thinking. They believe like Ellie that all of life is an adventure. I understand their thinking but I still can’t buy it. My friend Jeff told me of going out sailing on his friend’s boat and getting caught in a fierce storm. Jeff’s friend was too scared to try to turn the boat around, fearing it would capsize, so the two of them kept heading out to sea with no idea of the outcome. That was an adventure and I am not so sure vacuuming a rug is equal to it.
I live in a log house a mile from the nearest neighbor deep in an isolated hollow. We have solar power and our water comes from a spring piped into the house. Bears come visit and coyotes call many evenings from not far away. For some, living in this house would be an adventure, but for Tracy and me it is simply residing in a quiet and lovely spot.
Before we built the house five years ago, I lived for eight years in a small cabin without running water and with an outhouse. Even that was rarely an adventure—hiking in almost a half mile on an inch of ice at eleven at night occasionally was--since I almost always felt entirely safe and comfortable.
Even the year preceding the cabin which I spent off and on in a tipi was not particularly an adventure. The only time it truly fit the definition was the day I backpacked in after a severe ice storm. I fell at least a dozen times getting out there, and that night when the temperature dropped to eleven degrees and my wet wood kept me from spending more than a few minutes inside was definitely an adventure.
The things I have done that were dangerous and exciting have substantially defined me. Without them I would have never written my first book, In Search of the Wild, nor would I be the teacher I presently am. One of the things that my students appreciate is that I intersperse the literature we study with personal anecdotes. This is particularly effective when I have taught courses in environmental writing. I guess living every day as an adventure has its benefits, but I’ll stick with the handful I have had. Those still resonate deep within me, reminding me of the richness of my experience and inspiring me to test myself again.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Since winter seems to have ended and I am in Atlanta for my spring break enjoying some warm weather, this entry is going to be another essay.

I have always wanted to live next to a trout stream, preferably on an isolated stretch which I could fish in solitude. When I took my job at Radford University in 1986, I had hoped I would be able to eventually attain that dream. Of course, that kind of property is very expensive and as a teacher starting out at $22,000, I never came close to having the financial wherewithal to reach my goal. Instead, after years of searching, I settled on a large tract of relatively inexpensive land that had a very small stream running through it. I thought that I might eventually get a backhoe in to dig out a couple of pools and stock them, but with a large mortgage I never pursued that plan.
My next idea was to build a pond just below the small cabin I lived in, and I even had a Virginia extension agent come out and site a pond and give me some information about building it. It would have required the expense of many dump truck loads of clay and many hours of bulldozer or backhoe work, and in those days I had a massive amount of credit card debt (mainly from building the cabin).
Years later, after having an off-the-grid log house built with my partner Tracy, I decided it was time to finally build a trout pond. My salary was much higher and my debt load was very manageable. The house, however, was fifty yards below where the earlier pond would have been, so I had no choice but to build below our home. That meant the pond would be much smaller, more like a pondette.
I hired Ronnie, the backhoe operator who had worked on the house, and in a couple of days, I had a 20 by 30 foot, earthen dammed pond, drained by two six inch green PVC pipes. It leaked a bit by the pipes but looked relatively stable and was—until the first heavy rains from the remnants of a hurricane washed out the fill between the two pipes and then tore away a quarter of the dam.
Ronnie returned and we rebuilt it even larger, this time with only one pipe, figuring that would be sturdier than with the two pipes, but heavy rains washed this one out also. I had spent a couple of thousand dollars and I had little more than a puddle.
Ronnie visited again and we decided that we would use a more clay like fill (which he brought in in his dump truck) instead of the stuff he was borrowing from the hollow, and after he was done, I would have a concrete spillway poured.
I had worked in marine construction for several years, so I knew how to construct forms and position rebar. After Ronnie finished, I framed out a long spillway that angled up at the ends. Fifteen pieces of three foot rebar had been hammered into the clay with four inches of each one sticking up to within an inch of the top of the frame. I ordered 7 tons of concrete and when it arrived I had it chuted in and I had to shovel some of it around and then float it with a former student I hired for the afternoon.
This version of my dam seemed to be holding well, but my worries about the next heavy rain led me to dig out a trench with the bucket of my farm tractor and bury a 22 inch plastic culvert on one side of the dam. Now I thought I had enough drainage, and since then the culvert has never filled up more than half. The problem is that we have not had any rainfall equal to the two hurricane related storms, so I still had some concern about what would happen if the water ever got up to the spillway.
To stock the pond, I had expected to go to the hatchery in Newport, where I had years earlier bought 25 small trout and brought them back in two plastic garbage containers to stock a private section of the North Fork of the Roanoke River near my land. However, the Newport hatchery had gone out of business. I finally figured out on the internet that the nearest public hatchery in Wytheville. The friendly owner told me that he would sell me as many 9 inch rainbows as I wanted for a dollar apiece and he would lend me a tank to transport them.
I emptied the inside of the camper top on my pickup and drove the hour and a half to the hatchery. When I got there, there was a little bait and switch, as the owner told me that he could only sell me some 12 inch trout at 2 dollars each. That didn’t bother me too much but when I saw the large tank that needed to be loaded into my 4 cylinder, half ton truck, I began to worry. The tank held about two hundred gallons of water and at about 8 pounds per gallon I would be able to do a wheelie if I wanted. Another problem involved running the aerator motor’s clips to my battery, but I quickly figured that out.
The owner and his helper then netted me fifty decent rainbows, and with a fifty pound bag of trout food, I started, very slowly, on my way. I had come down on I-81 but I was scared to drive back on it. I could feel my front wheels weren’t solidly on the ground, particularly noticeable when I tried to turn. But I also wanted to get the trout home quickly so when I reached 81 I got on and kept the speedometer at 45.
After thirty minutes I couldn’t hear the aerator going so I pulled over and found that the old wires on it, which had at least a hundred yards of electrical tape on them, had shorted out. The trout were stressed, gulping at the surface, and I rushed to retape several of the bare spots on the wires. That fixed, I was back on the highway and in another thirty minutes I was exiting 81 at Radford, figuring I’d go the rest of the way on the local roads. I made a big sweeping turn to exit and halfway through I heard a loud crash. I immediately pulled over and I could see that the tank had shifted and taken out the camper’s long side window. I figured that was a three hundred dollar turn, and I still had to get the trout home. Forty five minutes later I was next to the North Fork, desperately netting and dropping 25 of the trout into the river. That finished, I drove to my pond and unloaded the rest, all of them having survived the journey. But I had no time to relax as I had to drive back to Whytheville to return the tank.
I fished the river several times after that, but never caught any of the stocked trout. I had thought to catch a few of the 25 in the pond to restock every few months, but as my partner and I got used to watching the lovely rainbows, they became pets. They have done well, some measuring over 18 inches, but recently I started to worry about them.
My pond, originally five feet deep, had now silted up to where it was barely two feet deep. At first the trout could hide in the depths but presently they were always visible, possibly subject to predators. To alleviate the problem, I called Ronnie again to dig out the sediment, but first I had to figure out how to get the trout out of the pond, since the professor I spoke to at Virginia Tech thought that leaving them in would probably suffocate them all.
I first ordered a long handled net and added eight more feet of handle to it. It was incredibly unwieldy and I would have had more luck capturing an alien spacecraft than any of those fleeting trout.
My next attempt involved trying to catch the trout with my fly rod. I have caught tens of thousands of trout over my career, and I have written for magazines like Sports Afield and Fly Fisherman. I certainly thought I was up to the challenge, but after I hooked one on a hare’s ear nymph, the other trout shut down completely. I threw Royall Wulffs at them, wooly buggers, and more nymphs but nothing happened. At that rate it would take weeks to catch them all.
Next I thought to use a large minnow seine, which I purchased online, and thought my problem solved. Yes, I would have to have three people to work the seine, all of them wading through at least three feet of mud, but I was sure we could corral the trout and dump them into a small inflatable pool.
As the date approached for the project, however, I had more doubts and pondered a third solution. If I rented a pump, I could drain the pond and then Tracy could easily net the confined trout. (You may wonder why I would have my partner netting trout in the heavy mud, but I had recently had a colon resection and was in the midst of chemotherapy. One of the drugs, Oxaliapatin, caused extreme pain in my hands and feet if they touched anything cold.) I did find a pump to rent but its cost was over a hundred dollars so I decided to see what it would take to purchase one. The salesman at the store suggested using a sump pump since that would be much less expensive, and would empty the pond in under four hours.
Now I had to have Ronnie out to dig a bypass ditch (where I wanted another long culvert installed just above the one feeding the pond). That dug, when we were ready to start all I would have to do was dump a few shovelfuls of dirt in front of the pond culvert, and the water would be diverted through the bypass ditch.
Our next stop was Lowe’s where I purchased a sump pump for about one hundred dollars and then I had to build a stand that would sit in the mud and allow the pump to stay at least a few inches above. My design was to make a kind of box-like frame, four long legs with a plywood shelf for the pump about two feet from the bottom, then another shelf three foot above to stabilize the whole thing.
Tracy and I had set up and filled two small inflatable pools the day before, and with everything ready, I shoveled in some dirt in front of the culvert to stop the flow. Tracy got in the water, and had to wade through thick, thick mud to get to the middle and set the stand, to which I had firmly attached the pump. When I plugged it in it worked perfectly.
After three hours of pumping, we had perhaps five hundred gallons of water left and the pump was sucking in air so we stopped it. Tracy tried to start netting the trout but in the thick chocolatey water she couldn’t find them.
The only thing to do was to keep moving the stand around and pushing it closer to the uneven bottom. It was hard work for Tracy, but in another hour we had all the trout in a small area, shallow area.
Tracy began netting the trout and handing the net up to me on the bank, then I would deposit them in one of the wading pools, aerated by garden hoses attached to our spring-sourced water system. In forty-five minutes that was finished and now it was time for Ronnie to return early the next day.
Ronnie spent several hours digging out the muddy bottom and depositing it on the other side of the dam. I was quite impressed with all the mud and then wet fill he got out, and when he had finished, we went to work on the long bypass culvert (about 50 feet long). That required joining three section of plasic pipe and then filling the ditch back in, but by early afternoon, the bypass was complete, and I had reopened the culvert to the pond. The water began to settle and clear quickly and I had all the trout back in the pond by twilight.
Overall, my trout program cost over $7,000 and at least one hundred hours of my time. I did catch one trout in the pond, and I have no doubt I could catch another within a year or two.