Three Little Birds

I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.
Thomas Jefferson, 1820

In a democratic form of government, the vote of the most ignorant uninformed citizen counts the same as that of the wisest and most brilliant person in the country. So the preferences of the most affluent and educated people won’t always carry the day. But the alternative is oligarchy, which the vast majority of us would find unacceptable.

I am reminded of two quotes from Winston Churchill:

“The best argument against democracy is a 15 minute conversation with the average voter.”

“Democracy is the worst form of government ever invented, other than every other system that has ever been tried.”

In a classroom of kids, a teacher can only go as fast as the slowest kid.

It’s a beautiful world.

Everything is going to be alright.

Snow. And Gratitude.

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It started snowing last Friday around dusk and snowed all night and into the next day. By the time it was over we had about 8 inches on the ground.

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He has a warm dry stall. But he prefers to stand in the snow until there are icicles hanging off him. Horses are from Mongolia.

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Kids staying warm and dry in the shed

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I worried about the hoop house collapsing from the snow. But as you can see, that wasn’t an issue. The snow slid right off the roof. The problem was that it piled along the side. I spent much of the day shoveling all that snow away.

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It was pretty while it lasted.

Monday morning we woke up to -2 degrees, a record low. A couple of days later it was nearly 70. Winter in Virginia.

Saturday, the day after the snow, was the last day of deer season. But the heavy snow, and the fact that it was still coming down, meant that it effectively ended on Friday.

I put three in the freezer this year, and I’m grateful for that. It’s now been over ten years since I quit eating meat that didn’t come off this farm. For over a decade, venison has been the only red meat I’ve eaten.

The sun was setting Friday evening when I took the last deer of the season, a large buck. The snow was falling hard and beginning to accumulate as I was field-dressing him in the edge of the woods. Nature becomes eerily quiet during snowfall. It’s hard to describe how beautiful it was. I gave thanks to Nature. I apologized to the deer, and thanked him for the sacrifice. I felt deeply humbled by it all. And deeply grateful for the opportunity to live this life.

Thinking About Beliefs

“A vexing problem in the history of human thought is finding one’s position on the boundary between skepticism and gullibility, or how to believe and how to not believe….Clearly, you cannot doubt everything and function; you cannot believe everything and survive.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This quote has been bouncing around in my head all morning. It relates to questions I’ve been pondering a long time. Among them, how do we come to have the core beliefs around which we orient meaning in our lives? How do we determine what is believable and what isn’t? How do we respond to those whose nature and life experiences have led them to beliefs that conflict with our own?

Rene Descartes famously set out to discover truth entirely from reason. He imagined his mind as a clean slate. After first deducing his own existence from the fact of his self consciousness (“I think, therefore I am”), he proceeded from there, ending up constructing a set of truths and beliefs based on analytic reasoning, which were probably identical to those he had before he began to think about them.

According to David Hume, moral reasoning is a sort of mind-trick (my words, not his). Reasoning, he claimed, is merely post hoc justification for our emotions. “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Some experiments in neuroscience and psychology seem to support Hume’s belief.

This has some fascinating implications.

If moral reasoning is generally a post-hoc construction intended to justify automatic moral intuitions, then our moral life is plagued by two illusions. The first illusion can be called the “wag-the-dog” illusion: we believe that our own moral judgment (the dog) is driven by our own moral reasoning (the tail). The second illusion can be called the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion: in a moral argument, we expect the successful rebuttal of an opponent’s arguments to change the opponent’s mind. Such a belief is like thinking that forcing a dog’s tail to wag by moving it with your hand should make the dog happy.

(From HERE)

Take the question of the humane treatment of farm animals, for example. I consider myself an example of someone who was led to change his opinions and behavior on that subject as a result of thoughtful moral reasoning. After I spoke about food ethics at a church in North Carolina last year, a woman tearfully told me that she had given up eating factory-farmed meat after reading my book, and that she and her husband had sold their house and bought a small farm so they could raise more of their own food. I know several people who have become vegans or vegetarians out of a concern for animal welfare. Examples like those seem to indicate that we can change our moral beliefs based on reasoning. But of course it’s entirely possible that in each of those cases the person’s change of behavior was due not to moral reasoning per se, but rather to their innate moral intuitions, which did not arise from reasoning. Maybe they weren’t so much persuaded to change their beliefs, as they were to conform their practices to their pre-existing beliefs.

Descartes argued that animals are mere machines, incapable of feeling pain or emotion. We need not concern ourselves with animal suffering, he reasoned, because there is no such thing. Our only concern should be how to maximize the utility of non-human animals for our own benefit. This Cartesian view of animals became the dominant scientific and philosophical view and still determines how many people respond to animal welfare issues.

I find the Cartesian view of animal suffering immoral, ridiculous and violative of common sense. Are those who adhere to the Cartesian view simply using it to justify a pre-existing insensitivity to animal suffering? Are they just grabbing post hoc onto a rationale for their desire to go on exploiting animals? And what about me? Am I accepting the moral arguments for animal welfare not because of the reasoning behind them, but rather because of pre-existing moral intuitions toward compassion/sentimentality?

Probably even more relevant in our everyday lives is the question of what Lothar Lorraine (in the excellent post linked above) called the “wag-the-other-dog’s-tail” illusion. We regularly argue with those with whom we have differences of opinion on moral issues.

Both sides present what they take to be excellent arguments in support of their positions. Both sides expect the other side to be responsive to such reasons (the wag-the-other-dog’s-tail illusion). When the other side fails to be affected by such good reasons, each side concludes that the other side must be closed-minded or insincere….They are convinced that reason is on their side, that those disagreeing with them are either morons or profoundly wicked people, and that they deserve to be treated in the rudest manner.

Aside from the fact that such arguments usually bring out our worst manners, it is very rare that they have the effect of changing anyone’s mind. Rather, it has been shown that when confronted with facts that challenge or refute deeply-held opinions, instead of changing those opinions people tend instead to believe them even more strongly! This is what is known as the “Backfire Effect.” So when we get into heated debates with folks whose opinions differ from our own, we not only steer ourselves toward the belief that they are “wicked,” “close-minded,” “morons,” we’re also having the unintended effect of causing them to hold their contrary beliefs more strongly than ever. So our intent to change their minds has exactly the opposite effect. Our arguments backfire.

So maybe we ought to devote less energy to trying to convert the close-minded morons to our way of thinking, and more energy to trying to understand their perspectives. I think I probably do.

I came across this recently, and it resonated with me.

How far is it from here to there?

How far from where I stand — the bit of earth, the people and places, my experiences and my feelings — to where others stand, what they experience, what they feel.

(HERE)

It seems to me that maybe we should be asking, what are the underlying emotional foundations upon which those with whom I disagree ground their reasoning? What can I learn from trying to understand that? How might making that effort affect public discourse? How can we disagree, without being arrogantly dismissive of contrary opinions? What can excuse remaining willfully ignorant of the emotional foundations of contrary opinions? I am reminded of something Richard Louv wrote: “there is no ignorance quite so unattractive as prideful ignorance.” And after all (to drop one more name), as John Stuart Mill noted, if you only know one side of the argument, then you don’t even know that.

As for me, I’m going to try to continue to form moral judgments, and to balance doubt and belief, according to what I perceive to be reasonable, whether or not that’s just an illusion, and whether or not what I perceive to be reasoning is actually the mere slave of my emotions.

And henceforth I’m going to try to be less judgmental of all those close-minded morons who refuse to submit in the face of my superior intellect and morality.

Decluttering and so on

One of my goals for this winter was to start a new writing project. Well, it’s mid-January and I haven’t yet written a word. But I did finally start my research in earnest yesterday, so there’s still hope for finishing it before time to start planting.

So what I have been doing instead? In addition to the regular demands of the farm (a full time job) I’ve used the winter slow-down to tackle a long list of “winter projects” that I’ve been compiling for years.

One task that I assumed would be a major headache turned out to be surprisingly easy. I did a lot of family research 20-30 years ago and dutifully saved all my work on floppy disks (the state-of-the-art storage media at the time). I assumed it would be difficult and expensive to convert all those old disks into something useful today. I was wrong about that. I bought a floppy disk converter from Amazon for less than $10. All I had to do was plug it into the computer, insert the disks, and, presto, the data was transferred to my hard drive.  That was a relief. Now what I am going to do with all these video tapes onto which we transferred the old family super 8 movies? Hopefully that task (which I’m saving for another winter) will be just as easy.

Those old floppies also had some writing from the way-back days and I’m happy to have rescued it. I made the disks with our first home computer. It was a Sony Vaio. We were probably among the last people in America to get a home computer. I wasn’t sure if it was more than a fad. A partner recommended the Sony. “It’s the only computer you’ll ever have to buy in your lifetime,” he told me. “It has more computing power than the Apollo space program had.” So I swallowed hard and shelled out nearly $5,000 for it at Best Buy. Within a couple of years it was little more than a toy. I held onto it much longer than it deserved, but eventually threw it away when we moved. A vastly superior computer today would cost less than 1/10 what we paid for that thing.

Another long-delayed winter project involved going through all the old farm records we had found and saved back when we were remodeling the old house here on the farm. We had receipts, correspondence and journals dating back to the 1870’s. Trying to organize them and separate out the more personal items, like letters and photos, took a long time and still left unanswered the question of what to do with them. If I just put them in a box in a closet there’s a good chance they’d someday end up in a dumpster after my death. Fortunately I arrived at a great solution. We donated them to the special collections department of the University of Virginia library. The folks there seem pleased to have them and now I know they’re going to be well cared-for.

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The Old House after this weeks snowfall

While in Charlottesville I even sold my my old UVa sports memorabilia collection, accumulated during a time in my life when that kind of thing was important to me, to a local store that specializes in that kind of thing. It was of no interest to anyone in my family and no longer to me either. It was just collecting dust and taking up space. I’m glad to pass it along to someone who may find some pleasure in it.

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I hadn’t been back to UVa in a long time. It was a beautiful day.

I did major service on our tractor and RTV, and some work on fences that wasn’t urgent, but needed doing. I even cleaned out my truck. But the major decluttering projects were our basement, barn and equipment shed. I hauled off truckloads of stuff. Stuff that I’d been afraid to throw away on the theory that I might someday need it. I felt pretty good about my efforts until I finished reading The Lean Farm by Dan Hartman. I now realize that I wasn’t nearly thorough enough. So I’ve already added decluttering to next year’s winter projects list and this time I’m going to be ruthless.

So I’ve checked off the items on the winter projects list, and that’s a good feeling. That list had been nagging at me for a long time.

Now, about that writing project…

 

Beets

I’m working on our seed order, which seems a fine thing to do when it’s minus two degrees outside and we’re covered in snow.

We had our annual detailed end-of-year farm review a few days ago, and decided to continue growing and marketing vegetables as before, albeit in a more concentrated way in fewer gardens. We’re going to add more chickens, to replace those we lost to predators and old age. We’re not going to raise any pigs this year. We’re going to continue as usual with the goats. And we’re going to go on vacation again in September. It’s a good plan.

I enjoy planning the gardens and ordering the seeds. As I say every year, this is the time of year when the gardens are all imaginary, so they’re weed-free, safe from deer and producing abundantly. Because of fantasies like that I usually order too much seed and plant more than we can well tend. I’m trying to be better this year.

I’m thinking about beets this morning. Over the years we’ve tried several varieties–Detroit Dark Red, Zeppo, Red Ace, Bull’s Blood and Lutz Green Leaf, among others. But my favorite continues to be Early Wonder Tall Top. I think it’s the only beet we’re going to plant this year. It always seems to do well for us, producing good roots and good greens. I will happily welcome any opinions on the subject.

Beets have an interesting history. They grew wild along the Mediterranean shores of Europe and North Africa and the greens were widely eaten by prehistoric people in that region. The Romans are credited with being the first to begin eating the roots. Romans carried beets along as they conquered northern Europe, where they became popular among the tamed barbarians, but primarily as animal fodder at first. By the 16th century their popularity as people food began to rise.

In the 1800’s the popularity of beets soared when it was discovered that they were an excellent source of sugar. Napoleon required that they be used as the primary source of sugar in France, due to British control of the sugar cane trade.

These days most of the sugar consumed in the U.S. (and probably the world) comes from sugar beets, not sugar cane. And 95% of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. are GMOs, genetically modified by Monsanto to be resistant to Roundup (glyphosate). So while folks like us are weeding our beets (a necessary and tedious job), the industrial sugar producers are just dowsing theirs with Roundup. If you’d rather avoid GMO food, it’s important to source cane sugar or organic sugar. Otherwise you’re almost certainly eating GMO beet sugar.

For any of you who haven’t tried them, I highly recommend beet greens. I actually prefer them to the root. It’s a shame, in my opinion, that so many people cut the tops off the beets and just throw them away. So when you see them at the farmer’s market, look for bunches of beets with the tops still attached!

Wasting Away

Trivia: What’s the highest grossing song of all time? That is, what song has produced more money for its composer than any other in history?

Hint: It’s not by the Beatles or Cole Porter or any other seemingly likely candidate.

For most of you the blog title probably gave it away. The surprising answer is “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett.

“Margaritaville”is a catchy tune, easy to sing along with and so easy to play on guitar that even I can do it. It’s a perfectly nice pop song. But it’s not at the top of the pop song money mountain because of record sales. It only made it to #8 on the pop charts when it was released in 1977.

Margaritaville has made a considerable fortune for Mr. Buffett thanks to aggressive licensing. Here’s a partial list of Margaritaville products (taken from Wikipedia):

  • “Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville” restaurant chain, tourist destination and chain of stores (shops) selling Buffett-themed franchise merchandise in Jamaica, Mexico and the U.S.
  • Margaritaville margarita mix (manufactured by “Mott’s” )
  • Margaritaville tequila
  • Margaritaville bottled malt beverages
  • Margaritaville branded Landshark Lager
  • Margaritaville Frozen Concoction Maker
  • Margaritaville chips & salsa
  • Margaritaville chicken wings
  • Margaritaville frozen seafood
  • Margaritaville Soles of the Tropics footwear
  • Margaritaville men’s & women’s apparel
  • Margaritaville outdoor & beach furniture
  • Margaritaville key-lime pie filling mix

There’s a Margaritaville internet radio station, a Margaritaville record label, a book of Margaritaville-themed short stories, and at Margaritaville.com you can find “Jimmy Buffett Tour Dates and Margaritaville Restaurants, Hotels, Casinos, Resorts, Vacation Club and Products.”

I was reminded of all this Margaritaville mania yesterday, when I saw the announcement that a new upscale Margaritaville resort (complete of course with a Landshark Bar) is going to be built in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to join all the others that already exist. Doing a quick internet search this morning, I see that rooms in the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort in Miami are over $300/night. At the Margaritaville resort in Grand Cayman the words “Changes in Latitude” are on the pillow cases.

Mr. Buffett has obviously come a long way from shoplifting peanut butter in Key West. It seems the lovable beach bum is quite the businessman.

I’ve been to my share of Jimmy Buffett concerts and I have most of his records. My wife has a stuffed parrot by her computer, and has been known to call herself a parrot-head. I get the attraction, and in a small way have contributed to the phenomenon.

But I think the question “what’s going on here?” is worth pondering. Why are so many people shelling out big bucks for little pieces of Margaritaville?

Certainly, it seems to me, there’s irony at play. “Margaritaville” (and Jimmy Buffett’s oeuvre generally) is selling the fantasy of a carefree beach bum lifestyle to an aging upper middle class who are mostly churning away as cogs in the economic machine. My guess is that many of them dream of that lifestyle, but are trapped in a life that makes it something they can only pretend to be a part of for a few hours at a concert or a weekend at a resort hotel (forgetting for a minute that the character in the song could never have afforded that). If I’m right about that, then there’s something sad about the appeal of Margaritaville. It’s like Cinderella’s castle for disappointed grown ups.

I was going to conclude with some thoughts about finding the courage to walk away from unsatisfying lives–maybe a suggestion that actual escape is better than escapism. But I think the point is obvious, so I won’t say much more this morning.

I can remember lots of miserable days and nights in a job that was sucking me dry. I desperately wanted out, but I was trapped by my duties, by responsibility, by prudence. But I never quit working toward the goal. I never surrendered to the idea that the closest I could ever come to my dream was to buy a bite of fantasy now and then. And that has made all the difference.

But there will be no flip flops and boat drinks here this morning. It’s a brisk 9 degrees outside right now and we have about 8 inches of snow on the ground. Time to feed the stove and the animals. If there’s to be any wasting away, it will have to wait till later.

 

 

 

 

Books Read in 2016

A few years ago, inspired by some of my favorite bloggers, I started keeping track of the books I read during the year and posting a list of them at the beginning of the following year. I enjoyed seeing what fellow book-lovers had been reading, so I thought it only fair that I  share my own list, in the hope that some may find it interesting.

I read a lot of books (but a lot less than some of you!). I’m not a speed reader. It’s just that reading books is my hobby. We don’t have a television, so we spend our evenings with books instead. In 2016 I read 50 books. Cherie read a lot more than that.

This is the last year I’m going to do a post like this. Not because I’m going to stop keeping track of my reading, or because I’m no longer interested in seeing other folks’ lists, but because I’ve finally discovered Goodreads. At Goodreads you can keep track of your reading and see what your friends are reading. You also get the benefit of their reviews and ratings. It’s a fun site for bookaholics like me. Feel free to “friend” me, if you’re on it.

Lots of good reading in 2016. Here’s my list, in the order I read them.

Civil War Blunders—Clint Johnson

The Chimp and the River—How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest—David Quammen

Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom—Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius

A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food—Eve Turow

A Maggot—John Fowles

In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue—Morton Sosna

Bread Wine Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love—Simran Sethi

Wines from a Small Garden: Planting to Bottling—James Page-Roberts

Eye of the Storm: A Civil War Odyssey–Robert Knox Sneden

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian & The Risk of Commitment—Daniel Taylor

Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture—Toby Hemenway

Great Expectations—Charles Dickens

The Nourishing Homestead: One Back-to-the-Land Family’s Plan for Cultivating Soil, Skills, and Spirit—Ben Hewitt

The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food—Dan Barber

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War—Joe Bageant

Youngblood Hawke—Herman Wouk

Totem and Taboo: Some Points of Agreement Between the Mental Lives of Savages and Neurotics—Sigmund Freud

Living Seasonally: The Kitchen Garden and the Table at North Hill—Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd

Pictures from an Institution—Randall Jarrell

What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth—Wendell Berry

Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir—Joe Bageant

The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats—Jim Goad

The Michelin Green Guide: Alsace Lorraine Champagne

All Over but the Shoutin’—Rick Bragg

Making Life Matter: Embracing the Joy in the Everyday—Shane Stanford

Danville, Virginia and the Coming of the Modern South—Michael Swanson

Jane Eyre—Charlotte Bronte

The Awakening—Kate Chopin

The Guns of August—Barbara Tuchman

A Decade of Revolution: 1789-1799—Crane Brinton

The Coming of the French Revolution—George Lefebvre

Cousin Bette—Honore de Balzac

Madame Bovary—Gustave Flaubert

The Bluest Eye—Toni Morrison

The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English—Ed. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar

The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivor’s Toolkit—Dmitry Orlov

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish—C. Christopher Smith

Tending—Laura Grace Weldon

Pittsylvania’s Eighteenth Century Grist Mills—Herman Melton

A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America—Jim Webb

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology—J. Richard Middleton

Rabbit, Run—John Updike

The Bonesetter’s Daughter—Amy Tan

The Corrections—Jonathan Franzen

The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food—Ted Genoways

A Soldier of the Great War—Mark Helprin

I, Claudius—Robert Graves

The Lean Farm: How to Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work—Ben Hartman

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered—E.F. Schumacher