Somehow a more innocent time, and with Vera Lynn’s passing at 103 it’s really passed definitively into History.
Somehow a more innocent time, and with Vera Lynn’s passing at 103 it’s really passed definitively into History.
(an extended rumination, knitting several trains of thought)
53 years ago we were in Sarawak, helping to build a new village into which people from 15 Iban longhouse communities would be resettled. This Land Development Scheme (its formal designation) involved the planting of high-yield rubber trees which the Scheme participants would (eventually) tap, thus trading a semi-self-sufficient life on the fringes of the cash economy for full-fledged peasant status, living on the proceeds of their labor in the sort-of-cooperative rubber plantation. They would “own” their rubber plots, but pay mortgages on the land and on the single-family houses in the new village. What could possibly go wrong?
The premise that government-sponsored Development would make a better life for all (schools for children, health care clinics, “Progress”) was almost completely unquestioned. The assumption that demand for natural rubber would increase was unstated, because self-evident to the minds of mid1960s government planners. But that’s not how it turned out.
The new village was built next to the single trunk road that connected to the state capital (some 80 miles away) and continued on to link a series of (basically Chinese) towns, all situated on rivers that had formerly been the primary transportation corridors. Quite suddenly the accessibility of rural hinterlands changed—buses were available to nearby towns, a vastly expanded range of goods and services became available, and participation in a national and international cash economy was ubiquitous.
That process of infrastructural development and contingent change was what I thought I would return to Sarawak to study, but that’s not how it all worked out. I went to Nova Scotia instead, and only occasionally checked in with what was happening in Sarawak. The last 50 years has brought devastation of forests, the building of large dams on several rivers, rural dislocations and resettlements, and the advent of palm oil plantations to take the place of rubber as the principal primary export commodity. The Sarawak we knew is all but unrecognizable.
The new village of 50 years ago was on the edge of a vast and largely impenetrable peat swamp, covered in 100+ foot hardwood trees. Nobody envisioned any possible use for that land, since it would have to be drained and cleared. Nobody thought of palm oil as a possible crop for Southeast Asia until about 1980. That’s when Malaysia (and Indonesia) started to ramp up palm oil planting. Beyond swamp-draining and planting of oil palm, I don’t know any of the details of the development in the area we worked in, but in general the development process in Sarawak involves government and large corporations, and the public face of the operations emphasizes the benefits to one and all of the glorious implementation. The only sure thing is that the little people get squeezed and screwed, while somebody else reaps the benefits.
My attention to this bit of backstory comes about today because of a New York Times Magazine article on the tragedies of palm oil, which mostly focuses on Indonesia, and which raises some wider issues that I’m inclined to discuss under a new rubric: What Kittens?. The reference is to a passage in Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel, written 90 or so years ago but absolutely on the money today. Still more backstory is needed.
When I began to read about agriculture, in the early 1970s and before I went to Nova Scotia to do research in what I was pleased to label as “agricultural transformation”, a central concept for my explorations was the importance of exotic energy, by which I meant petroleum fuels and such petroleum derivatives as fertilizers and pesticides. In the 20th century, exotic energy was brought to bear on agricultural production, underwriting its intensification and midwifeing the increasing scale and concentration of agricultural enterprises. It was the inexorability of the transformation process, together with its malign effects upon families and communities, that led me to abjure that line of research as soon as the ink was dry on my dissertation.
I continued to track the significance of exotic energies in human affairs throughout my teaching career, especially in about 15 iterations of a course I called Human Geography. I was never as systematic as I should have been, but I did continue keep eyes peeled throughout the years as a librarian. Some years ago I read a number of news stories about far-sighted experimenters who were using discarded vegetable oil (mostly from fast food fryers) to power their diesel cars. A win-win, one might have thought: recycling a disposable, replacing a petroleum product, carving out an efficiency. Soon after that rash of stories I heard about “biodiesel” as an alternative Green fuel source, and made the assumption that the feedstock must be recycled plant oils… Ah, assumptions. Little did I know that the Southeast Asian palm oil plantations were more and more the primary source of biodiesel, and (hand in hand with deforestation) responsible for much misery along with obscene profits for the perpetrators of ever-larger projects. None of this should have been in the least surprising.
In the 1960s the concept of Development was a leitmotif in many social science disciplines, not least in Economics, Political Science, and Anthropology. After a brief vogue for Ecology, Cybernetics, and a whiff of Sociobiology, in the 1970s and 1980s the leading edge lurched toward Postmodernism and Diversities (thankfully, I missed those morasses). The 1990s found those same fields riveted by Globalization. And the 21st century has seen Global Warming and Inequality come to the fore as the reigning integrative challenges. Each of these seems like an era, and the succession leaves a trail of supposed focal Problems behind, their dilemmas unresolved and their protagonists ageing gracelessly.
It’s been far too long since the last post, a lot of travel has filled the last four months, and hundreds of new photographs grace the Flickr photostream. There’s a new instrument (a Veillette Gryphon, cute as a bug), and the 54th anniversary and 75th birthdays are now behind us. New projects have been spawned by fateful encounters, and that’s likely to keep happening over the next four months. A Blurb book or two may eventuate once the current leitmotifs condense. Betsy has photos in the next issue of Seeing in Sixes and has just had a portfolio accepted for publication in the December issue of LensWork. And my new Nikon Z7 should be arriving soon…
I’ve vowed before to make more use of the blog to record photographic discoveries and conundrums, and I’m vowing again. I continue to bounce from project to project, never sure whither I’ll turn next. Reading a lot, looking at lots of photographs, trying to Make Sense of it all.
These four images have a common thread, though I can’t articulate its dimensions very well:
I follow a lot of blogs, via my Feedly RSS feed. Mostly I skip through their subject lines quickly, reading only those that seem directly relevant to my interests (which do tend to sprawl) and sending on to various others the URLs that seem to me likely to be of interest to specific interwebs buddies.
For years now I’ve used Zotero to keep track of the blog postings that are especially fraught with meaning for myself, and there’s a link at the top of my blog that connects to
which sort of mirrors the day to day flux of engagements. Missing from this list (because I can’t discern any way to include) is the aboutness categories into which I place the links. I can capture the links to specific aboutnesses (e.g., Trumpery captures the links to postings on that subject; anthro tracks what strikes me as preservation-worthy in that realm; and lexicon for wordstuff… and so on). So I can keep track of my own interests, as reflected in the reverse order of stuff I send to Zotero, and I can figure out when I first encountered something via RSS, though I rarely do that sort of retrospective inquiry. But the whole thing is rather unwieldy.
Perhaps I’m missing or misunderstanding something of Zotero’s powers as an information management tool, but it seems to me there should be some way to hashtag Zotero captures, and thus potentially to incorporate them into discourse. Which is to say that I’m wrestling with how to capture the flow of important stuff and then expose it to wider audiences. An activity I’ve been engaged in forever, it seems.
It’s been months since I last posted anything to oookblog, but they’ve been busy months: some Blurb books, a bout of shop work, the usual flurriment around the holiday season. And here it is almost mid-March, and we’re preparing for a fortnight in France (a few days in Paris on either end of a week in Brittany) and contemplating other travels in the summer. A lot of material that I might have posted here (charting day by day encounters with stuff that piqued interest and comment) has gone into writing on paper instead, but I remain committed to the notion that it’s BETTER to put the quotidian flux where others might enjoy it.
The grandest accomplishment of the last 3 months has been a book of photographs and narrative drawn from the family archives that have been my responsibility for the last 40 years or so:
And of course there’s photography to think about and work on. And the never-ending river of books to read.
This marvelous photograph is dated ’07, but I can’t remember just where I bought it:
The pose is quite “modern” for 1907, the furniture is pretty bizarre, and the lace snowflake is all but unprecedented in my experience. What tale can possibly be extracted from this material?
Well. The photographer (Levering) turns out to have been active in the Connecticut Valley in the early years of the 20th century, and was apparently headquartered in Northfield, MA. And sure enough, there’s a 1900 Census record for Madeleine V. Long, 11-year-old daughter of Russell B. Long, of Northfield MA (not The Kingfish Russell B. Long of LA). Now, Northfield is a pretty small place, the principal jewel of which was Northfield School, founded by Dwight L. Moody in 1879. Both of our children went to NMH, and Betsy’s grandmother (Elizabeth Parmenter, as she then was) was Organ Mistress at Northfield in the early years of the 20th century. So our Madeleine might very well have known Elizabeth Parmenter. Small world…
Wish I could discover more of the story of Madeleine, now that I know there is one. She turns up as a resident of Northfield in 1935, suggesting that she never married, and I fully expect to find that she has some connection to the school (alumna? teacher?), which is now across the river in Gill and fully merged with Mount Hermon (the Northfield campus was closed in 2005).
I read pretty much all day, when I’m not looking and/or listening (and sometimes then, too), or doing something that focuses my attention on some motor activity. It would be difficult to keep track of that reading, though I generally do record in my journal what books I start or finish on a particular day, and I sometimes make cryptic notes, or save links to Zotero, or even occasionally hatch out blog postings. Often enough, the things I read fit more or less into ongoing dialogs and burgeoning collections, though systematic linkage isn’t all that common. Themes like Time do seem to recur, and I’m conscious of occasions to fit things read into my own personal chronology.
Case in point that prompts this posting is a wish to save a path to a New Yorker piece that deals with a specific time and a generation: Table Talk: How the Cold War made Georgetown hot describes a world of influential folk in 1950s and 1960s Washington, more or less focused on Joseph Alsop. The world portrayed is utterly foreign to my experience, and a long way from the Washington of the present (similarly foreign, thankfully), but the doings of those people –Kennedys, Kissinger, CIA operatives– surely warped my own world. There’s a certain fascination in exploring their time-and-place, as described in this interview with Alsop biographer Robert Merry (very 1996 in style):
Another recent (re-)reading is Nicholas Freeling’s Tsing Boum, a Van Der Valk mystery which plunges us into 1950s French military history, Dien Bien Phu and its aftermath. Again, outside my own experience, but an influential precursor to the American Vietnam disasters which so affected my own generation.
Quite without irony, in walking away from the domestic and cultural structures of the Fifties and before, we found and formed our own quite rigid self-affirming groups in order to demand the right to express our individuality (6)… Along with anger and style, mockery was another way to identify who we were and who we were not (27)… The compromises that adults make cause much of the suffering in the world, or, at best, fail to deal with the suffering. Acceptance of one’s lot –maintaining a silence about what can’t be said, lowering your expectations for your own life and for others, and understanding that nothing about the way the world works will ever change– is the very marrow of maturity, and no wonder the newly fledged children look at it with horror and know that it won’t happen to them –or turn their backs on it for fear it will. (37-38)… The Sixties generation are getting to an age where the world is beginning to look quite baffling and alien. It happens to everyone as they grow older. People don’t notice you in the street, they aren’t very interested in what you have to say. We complain about how things used to be and how they are now– better then, terrible now. And it feels as if this is true. But perhaps it always feels true as the centre drifts away from you. (133)
For my purposes, ‘Generation’ is too diffuse and sprawling a unit. I’ve had several occasions to write about age cohorts as especially important sociocultural entities. The 3-year cohort (in my case, people born 1942-1944) seems to me to share formative influences that are truly binding and defining.
Tom Rush is pretty eloquent, for the greying:
A couple of days ago I walked the course of the Blueberry Cove Half Marathon (13.1 miles on our lovely peninsula) and spent yesterday recovering. A measure of my malaise is in the reading: I took up Dorothy Sayers’ Clouds of Witness (vintage 1927) and was transported to a place and time where this sort of dialog was a possibility:
“You’d better toddle back to bed,” said Lord Peter. “You’re gettin’ all cold. Why do girls wear such mimsy little pyjimjams in this damn cold climate? There, don’t you worry. I’ll drop in on you later and we’ll have a jolly old pow-wow, what?” (pg 72)
Such Eternal Verities are Therapeutic.
Clay Shirky summarizes today’s situation eloquently in The End of Higher Education’s Golden Age. A few of the choicest bits:
Decades of rising revenue meant we could simultaneously become the research arm of government and industry, the training ground for a rapidly professionalizing workforce, and the preservers of the liberal arts tradition. Even better, we could do all of this while increasing faculty ranks and reducing the time senior professors spent in the classroom. This was the Golden Age of American academia.
…so long as college remained a source of cheap and effective job credentials, our new sources of support—students with loans, governments with research agendas—were happy to let us regard ourselves as priests instead of service workers.
…Over the decades, though, we’ve behaved like an embezzler who starts by taking only what he means to replace, but ends up extracting so much that embezzlement becomes the system. There is no longer enough income to support a full-time faculty and provide students a reasonably priced education of acceptable quality at most colleges or universities in this country.
…Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million –the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility– are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.
Oh but I was fortunate to be in when I was, and to exit when I did…
The Blog is 10 years old today, and that calls for some sort of Celebration.
In fact my page-making/html-wrangling life goes back 20 years, and began with online guides intended for distribution to specific audiences, initially in the ‘Library Instruction’ mode. These gradually morphed into subject-defined weblets, and then into dated and accretive logfiles. The earliest logfiles I can still find are from March and April 1998, just about 16 years ago, by which time I’d established the habit of opening a new logfile whenever I began a line of inquiry that I thought would be likely to persist. Many of the hyperlinks I collected in those pages are now dead dead dead, but often it’s possible to see/recover the process of discovery I enjoyed as I searched and read. A few examples: Spring 1995 OED exploration, 1995 page on searches in Biology literature, my first University Scholars course (History of Technology, winter 1999), and a suite of pages for my Fall 2002 sabbatical. Many more can be found via the Web Legacy summary (compiled Spring 2005).
By 2003 I wanted to explore RSS-linked blogging, but couldn’t get W&L’s computing services interested in hosting the necessary software; I finally set up my own oook.info domain in March 2004, and instantiated OookBlog using MovableType software. I’ve used the blog to track day-to-day discoveries and ruminations, mostly as a sort of electronic journal, with myself as the primary reader. In 2013 I transferred the contents to WordPress, and augmented the overall presentation with links to other material at the top of the page.
This morning I decided that improving the tagging of posts would be a good step at Year 10, so I’ve spent today going through the posts to add tags. Along the way I’ve reacquainted myself with stuff I’d forgotten about, and begun to think about things I might do more systematically in the next 10 years. I wish I’d been more systematic about blogging my reading, and I’m not too pleased with the categories or the consistency of my tagging (argybargy and musics show up a lot, also quote and reading; metastuff is my own creation). I’m surprised at the number and diversity of music videos (and note that quite a few are no longer available). The daily capture of my Delicious feed ended in September 2011, but I’ve discovered that my Delicious tags DO still work! The Zotero link is the best I’ve been able to do as a replacement for Delicious.
A few nuggets I was especially pleased to rediscover: the tune Otiose Maggie; a nice grasshopper picture; my first experiment in podcasting: On Musical Variety (2004); elements of my Nova Scotia Faces project: the sad tale of Poor Alice G. and two nice videos; and a scattering of poetical bits: haiku/senryu written while hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine in 2002, a farewell to Makeshift, two on patriotic excess, one on debts of gratitude, and a longer one on connections.
Bits of quotation are everywhere, but today’s Prize goes to Emerson
A man of 45 does not want to open new accounts of friendship. He has said Kitty kitty long enough.
In sum, I’m quite pleased with the breadth and the onward progress reflected in what I’ve found today. I continue to Believe In this medium, even if I’m speaking mostly to myself.