so……

This site contains a variety of short and longer poems, along with some essays and travel narratives. Some were written for a specific occasion or about a specific person or place. Others were intended to be more general and to have a longer shelf life.   I hope an entry here or there may resonate with your experiences. Enjoy!

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

                                            —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been a rough couple of months here in North Carolina: two hurricanes (Florence, then Michael), a polarized government, widespread agricultural losses, increasing poverty, damaged schools and infrastructure. 

Yet there’s been heartening news as well. Many established charities such as the American Red Cross have sent disaster recovery teams to the worst impacted areas. Local citizens in areas less damaged by the storms have created both short-term and long-term relief efforts. A neighbor who specializes in local fundraising set up a Sunday-afternoon event at a nearby shopping center and raised over $10,000 in cash plus thousands of dollars worth of non-perishable food and household goods for hurricane relief. Because of the extent of the damage, both in the Carolinas and elsewhere, it will take continued efforts by private donors, non-profits, government agencies, and financial institutions to help promote recovery.  The natural environment will never be the same; repairs, rebuilding, and/or relocation of homes and businesses will take months if not years. 

After hurricane Florence decimated the coastal Carolinas, major roads and interstates were flooded and impassable for over a week, making cities such as Wilmington, North Carolina effectively islands.  Residents who’d evacuated were asked not even to try to return home as soon as the first few roads were reopened—what limited road travel was possible needed to be reserved for emergency and supply crews.  Now that the immediate crises are over, people are starting to grapple with longer-term problems: should rebuilding be limited in areas that seem more and more prone to drastic weather?  Should building codes be changed? How do we adapt our infrastructure to be more resilient? Do we need to pursue alternatives to a predominately road-based transportation network?

Simple solutions seem elusive and likely counterproductive. Perhaps we need to rethink some of the implicit assumptions we’ve made about how the world works.  Rather than considering ourselves outside nature, it may be time to widen our perspectives and acknowledge that we humans are just one piece in a complex, evolving whole.  Among the groups that have challenged some of my existing perceptions are:

Transition networks (https://transitionnetwork.org/), a set of local-global initiatives to work toward more resilient local economies in the face of escalating global challenges

Bioneers (https://bioneers.org/), harnessing scientific knowledge toward solving human problems

Biomimicry 3.8 (https://biomimicry.net/), which looks at other life forms (some with over 3.8 billion years of experience on earth) for innovative ways to re-engineer human-made systems

What partial solutions have you discovered?  What “small/local” actions are you taking to make our future more livable?  Please share some of your thoughts. 

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits   —by Jinny Batterson

(I’ve expanded an earlier version of this post that was written in 2014. Many of the issues remain the same; my wordiness has increased. Please read and pass along to anyone you believe would benefit.  Thanks!)

As a citizen in a democracy, I am a member of multiple levels of government whether I like it or not. Democracy, it is often said, is imperfect, but still better than the other options. Recently many opinion leaders in the United States have questioned whether we Americans are losing “the habits of democracy.” Over the years, I’ve sometimes exhibited bad political habits. I’m trying to reform, to become a more effective member of a democratic society. Below I’ve listed seven of my bad habits, with possible correctives. Recognize any?  

1) Politics is serious business, so I need to engage in it with utmost seriousness. 

Many of us with reformist bents can allow our passion for improving the world to overtake our sense of humor and proportion. Whenever I’ve done this, often I’ve tripped over my own earnestness or outrage, alienating potential allies—sending nasty letters to elected officials, carrying protest placards, scowling. Successful politicians of many different persuasions, from Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela, have learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously. There are good reasons why campaign photographs show candidates smiling.

Even in these polarized times, it IS possible to be well-reasoned, polite, even humorous. When I’ve taken the time to cool down before approaching officials at any level, I’ve had better success at getting them at least to recognize my perspective, even if they may not entirely agree. As a wise mentor once told me, “A smile is the shortest distance between two points of view.”  

2)  Politics is dirty, and most politicians are crooks, so I don’t want to get involved.

The list of our national, state and local political scandals seems endless. I can find it tempting just to walk away from politics to avoid being tainted, too. I hear about “dark money” (large contributions that are difficult to trace) and its influence on elections. Not surprisingly, some politicians in all political parties have accepted large sums from PACs, superPACS, possibly even foreign sources. I could not compete with large donor groups, even if I won the lottery.

However, that does not exempt me from making my small contribution—money, in-kind donations, and/or labor—to support candidates and causes of my choice. I can research the sources of candidates’ campaign contributions through public records and watchdog groups. I can vary the sources of my “partial” news (neither impartial nor complete) to try to understand multiple perspectives. Most important of all, I CAN VOTE, even when my possibilities seem less than ideal.   

3) Government can solve all our problems.

  I can let my expectations of government get overblown, instead of trying to make a difference where I have the most expertise and potential impact. Much as I’d like for my elected officials to snap their fingers and instantly reduce any negative impacts of globalization and automation, reduce unemployment to zero, eliminate poverty, and mitigate climate change, I realize that expecting governments to do too much too quickly can be self-defeating.

My most visibly effective actions have been at the local level—lobbying for enhanced facilities at a nearby park, or speaking out to oppose the rezoning of a small stretch of undeveloped green space. I can get informed and make a small difference; many small differences DO add up. 

4) Government is the problem.

On several occasions, I’ve lost my temper in conversations with “faceless bureaucrats” over regulations I thought were obsolete, needlessly harsh, or downright stupid. I can find parts of government maddeningly unresponsive, from the local to the federal level. 

It’s far easier for me to remember government actions that inconvenience me or limit my perceived choices than to remember valuable government services, from filling potholes on winter-damaged roads through providing police, fire and military protection, to dispensing veterans’  benefits, to underwriting healthcare subsidies for the elderly and the poor. Sometimes I may need to give the “faceless bureaucrats” a pat on the back.

 

5) Local politics does not matter.

I can too easily focus on the “big” political races, glossing over the reality that the government level that impacts me most directly is local: zoning rules; property tax laws and rates; school pupil assignments; the placement of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures.

To be most effective, I need to focus much of my political time and effort on local issues. Besides, for citizens and officials alike, learning needed consensus building and compromise skills starts close to home. This was hammered home to me shortly after I moved to North Carolina, when a school board election that drew just over 10% of the county’s voters created a temporary majority opposed to diversity. They reversed a decades-long pattern of economically-based integration in the county’s schools. in the next election cycle, turnout doubled, though still low in an odd-year election. A more moderate school board took office.

6) If I just elect the right candidates, all will go well.

In several previous election contests, I’ve voted for a successful candidate I thought would be best for the town/county/state/country. When little immediately changed, I got disappointed. Partly because our national population has increased nearly a hundred fold since the U.S. became a nation, many officials at all levels represent increasingly large populations—in their districts, their state, or our nation as a whole. 

Therefore, if I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, I need to do more than use my vote to support candidates whose views most closely reflect my own. Voting is a necessary first step, but not the only one. I also need to remind successful candidates, once elected, of my views on issues that affect me—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.

7) “Watershed” elections are crucial; some losses are irreversible.

As I’ve lived through more and more election cycles, I’ve come to believe that hyperbole about potential shifts in policy as a result of a single election can be counterproductive. Of course presidential elections can matter. Of course it can matter which political party controls national appointments and committee assignments. Many substantive changes, though, take decades or even generations. It took 58 years from the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that established a “separate but equal” doctrine for public facilities to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending legal segregation of public schools. An initial national Women’s Rights Convention was held in 1848. A U.S. constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in national elections was not ratified until 1920. Conversations and disagreements in our broader society about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of minorities and women continue to this day.

I’m skeptical of overblown claims, both of single-election disaster potential, and of single-election long-term gains. At the same time, I’ve concluded that it is important to vote in EVERY election, not just the high profile ones. Also, I need to stay engaged, informed, and involved, regardless of who holds the presumed power at any given time—I need to remember that truth is always eventually more powerful than a lie.

After especially bruising mistakes or defeats, I pick myself up and start again. If each of us works to become less prone to our own bad habits, we CAN change our governments at multiple levels for the better. Rather than the polarized extremes of political culture we are too often exposed to, we can move toward the “more perfect union”  envisioned by our nation’s founders as they wrote the preamble to our U.S. Constitution. 

As you work to reform whatever your bad political habits happen to be, first and foremost, PLEASE make it a habit to keep your voter registration current, and PLEASE vote—in every election!      

Losing Our Leaves, Leaving Our Losses

Losing Our Leaves, Leaving Our Losses   —by Jinny Batterson

Not yet the part of autumn with luminous light,
But already the leaves have begun to drop.
Those still on the trees are ragged-edged
From the winds of recent storms.

We, too, begin to droop, weighted
Down by the trillions of gallons of water
And waste churning through our coastal plains
As hog lagoons and ash ponds drain oceanward.

If we’ve not been media hermits, we’ve
Been exposed, too, to a flood of tantrums
And tears from high office seekers, office holders,
Commentators, and accusers alleging past violations.

Whether we sense a booming, blaming paternal voice
Out of Eden, or a quiet niggling of conscience
Before the morning’s ever-breaking news,
We start to see the fig leaves we wear.

A loss of innocence is the hardest loss to bear.
The desire to appear blameless is universal–for
Genders, races, nations, high office aspirants alike.
Yet endure such losses we must, maybe more than once.

By the time trauma has receded, by the time an anguished outcry
Gets voiced, will we excuse ourselves with well-rehearsed denials:
“Overwrought, imagining things, too long ago, never happened,”
Or can we acknowledge the hurt, muster the collective grace
To answer with contrite, action-backed apologies? Will we,
Both injured and injurer, leave our losses, begin to rebuild trust?

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?  —by Jinny Batterson

Recently, a friend forwarded to me an email of guidelines for “buying USA,” comparing some everyday items, from greeting cards to toothpaste, that are marketed in the U.S. but now often made in other countries. I have no objection to buying more of the goods I use from hardworking Americans, but I do object to the thinly veiled inference that workers in China (or Mexico, or some other lower-wage country) are stealing American jobs. Wording of the message forwarded to me matches one posted by a real estate developer from near Charlotte, NC in March, 2016, as that year’s election cycle was heating up (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ace-hardware-made-usa-very-encouraging-david-e-johnson-pe). My initial reaction to the message: Oh, rats! Here we go again, blaming job losses on low-wage workers in other parts of the world, when those workers actually play only a small part in American job losses. This mid-term election cycle, I’m concerned that both recycled and more recent posts and tweets are trying to persuade American voters that a broad trade war with China will help save American jobs. 

Over the past forty years, I’ve been able to spend a fair amount of time visiting with workers in China. They don’t want to steal anyone’s job. They are just trying to improve their lives, like workers everywhere. In the 1940’s,1950’s and 1960’s, many Americans left grinding rural poverty for better manufacturing jobs in cities. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, many Chinese also left the countryside in search of better paying urban jobs. By now, Chinese wages have risen. The Chinese government is starting to tighten regulations to rein in the pollution that significantly shortens Chinese lives. Some jobs are leaving China for other countries with lower wages and/or laxer environmental rules.

After I sent a semi-coherent reply to my friend, I let a later draft sit. I needed more time to simmer down and reflect. I realized that I’m very lucky.  So far, my retirement income is comfortable. I do not have to pinch pennies. I can afford to be selective in my buying habits. As much as possible, I patronize local sources. When we lived in Vermont, I made a special effort to buy cheese from our area farmers’ co-op; in Virginia, I bought a lot of local apples; here in North Carolina, I shop the local farmers’ markets; I eat ribs and barbecue at local restaurants. For less-localized items, I check labels along with prices to see where a product originated and how it was produced. Even if they’re somewhat more expensive,  I will sometimes buy U.S.-made goods to help support American workers. At holidays or when buying specialty items, I often purchase “fair trade” products so that some of my coffee, chocolate, and gift purchases will help support those with the lowest wages. Overall, I try to be an informed, careful, caring consumer.

Despite all sorts of “buy from nearby” campaigns, and despite what we may want to believe about fair and unfair trade, for at least a generation the biggest cause of job losses worldwide has been the quickening pace of replacing human workers using automation. According to a Financial Times article published just after Mr. Trump’s election (https://www.ft.com/content/dec677c0-b7e6-11e6-ba85-95d1533d9a62, December 2, 2016), about 85% of U.S. manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation rather than to moving jobs overseas. The same article compared the average hourly wage for a human American welder ($25) with the operating cost to have a robot do the same work ($8). If you include the installation and maintenance costs for the robot, the gap narrows slightly. However, the cost difference is likely to continue growing. 

Some trade agreements can damage the interests of workers and/or put at risk the natural environment that supports human life as we know it. Global trade has rarely been without its distortions and inequities. (For example, ask almost any Chinese about the British practice during the 19th century of exporting opium raised in the British colony of India into China to offset the costs of British imports of tea and porcelain, or consider the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Negotiating worthwhile trade deals can be both time-consuming and extremely difficult—blogs or tweets alone don’t cut it. 

One of my grandfathers lost his job in 1930 when the company he was working for at the time replaced their human bookkeepers with calculating machines as a cost-cutting measure. On President Herbert Hoover’s final full day in office, March 3, 1933, he signed the “Buy America Act” that had recently passed the U.S. Congress. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was not solved.

Americans suffering from job losses need assistance and encouragement rather than attempts to divert the problem onto others. Automation, used wisely, can help improve lives; used foolishly, it can devastate human workers, even entire communities. Global competition, used wisely and fairly, can help spur innovation and growth. Used foolishly, it can pit groups that have many common interests against each other.

Blaming will not solve anything. Please let’s take time together to consider the deeper issues. 

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited   —by Jinny Batterson

During my childhood, my most formally religious aunt used to give me books of Bible stories, adapted for children. One of the most difficult stories for me was Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It concerned death, not totally unknown even to small-town American children in the 1950’s, plus a kind of cosmic reckoning:

In a gated estate there lived a rich man, who (revised standard translation, part of Luke’s gospel, chapter 16) “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”  Outside the rich man’s gate was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  Sharing was apparently not part of the rich man’s ethos, so Lazarus languished in distress.

After a time, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven, “Abraham’s bosom,” a welcome change. The rich man, by contrast, went to Hades, a realm of fire and brimstone, just near enough to heaven so the rich man could see Lazarus there, hanging out with Abraham in comfort. The rich man cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” Nothing doing, Abraham explained. The rich man had had his chance at comfort while alive. Now the chasm between his current locale and Lazarus was deep and impenetrable, allowing for no crossovers.

During the 1990’s, I was briefly exposed to a widening gap in perspectives between rich and not-so-rich. I had a short-term subcontract with a major accounting firm at their downtown office. At the time, I was living in an inner city neighborhood that suffered the side-effects of a worsening epidemic of crack cocaine: robberies, arrests, lengthy prison sentences, even murders. It was a scary time. Occasionally I went out to lunch with my accounting firm colleagues. Once, I asked my supervisor whether the city’s worsening poverty and crime bothered him.

“I don’t have to notice poverty or crime,” he responded. “After work, I ride the elevator down to the guarded basement garage to retrieve my car. Then I drive out the expressway to my home in a gated community in the suburbs. No poor people interact with me at all. It’s not my problem.”  For most of the years since that encounter, I’ve lived in relative comfort, while trying with mixed success to learn and practice the discipline of sharing.

Though some quote an incident near the end of Jesus’ ministry as a justification for ignoring those in poverty, saying, without the surrounding context, “you always have the poor with you,” the vast majority of Jesus’ sayings and actions support the view that caring for “the least of these” is a sacred duty. 

The year 2018 so far has been filled with more than a little fire and brimstone—volcanic eruptions on Hawaii’s big island, huge wildfires in much of the U.S. West. In the part of the country where I live, the major problem has been floods. So far, they have yet to approach Biblical proportions, but the aftermath of Hurricane Florience in eastern North Carolina has been severe enough so that our current equivalent of Noah’s Ark has deployed, in the form of government rescue boats and the “Cajun navy,” a set of volunteers with small boats who previously plied their crafts in last year’s major flooding in Houston, Texas.  Florence drenched already struggling regions with over two feet of rain. Among the hardest hit were the region’s poor. Relieved to have been spared the worst of the storm, I watched media coverage of a flooded housing project where building maintenance had long been ignored or postponed. Videos showed some of the problems: peeling paint, exposed pipes, stained ceilings. Residents complained of asbestos-laced insulation. The electricity had gone out, and no one knew when it might be restored.

Beyond temporary aid, what could be done to help?  Should we as a society put more emphasis on affordable housing, less on high-end real estate? Would rebuilding and/or relocating require higher taxes? Could we somehow craft a renewed ethic of sharing? 

As I struggled to make sense of our society, seemingly rather badly out of kilter, I went out for a walk. The days were getting shorter. It occurred to me that our earth was in the period around an equinox—one of two occasions each year when the sun’s rays hit our tilted planet directly over the equator. Around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, all creatures everywhere on earth experience days and nights of roughly equal length.

Instead of a chasm between wealth and poverty that gets harder and harder to cross, maybe we need something approaching a human “equinox.” Maybe we can head toward a narrower “wealth gap,” with adequate basic provisions for all living beings. Getting to a more equitable distribution and use of earth’s resources will take skill, political will, and good character. It IS possible, though. Nature creates equinoxes twice each year. Can we learn from her before flood, fire and brimstone get worse?  Happy fall, y’all!             

Happy Interdependence Day!

Happy Interdependence Day!    —by Jinny Batterson

For a good many years now, I’ve bracketed an insertion into my July 4 Independence Day greetings to friends in the American expatriate community:

“Happy In(ter)dependence Day!” I extol them.  It has seemed to me increasingly evident that in an era of global communication and commerce, celebrating “independence” needs a counterweight. We have become more and more dependent on one another across all sorts of boundaries. So I was pleased to find that others more widely known than I am have come up with similar themes. Perhaps the most widely publicized is a September 12 holiday proposed in the years just following the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.  In 2003, a group met to create a day to celebrate our global interconnectedness, and settled on September 12, the day after the terrorist assault, as a day for an annual celebration. According to Parag Khanna, one of its founders:

     “For the event’s organizers (the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland), Interdependence Day is intended to be crucially different from 4 July. Where Americans alone celebrate the latter, the idea of interdependence unites all peoples across national boundaries in a common human destiny. At the same time, there is an element of deep continuity: for Americans in particular will have to struggle as hard to realize the promise of interdependence as they did for independence.”  (For a fuller explanation, please check out the following link: https://www.paragkhanna.com/home/americas-interdependence-day.) 

     I’ve just returned from a cross-country U.S. trip, benefiting from collaborative practices among airline personnel, colleagues, other passengers, and airport employees to adjust schedules and seating to get as many of us as practical back to our homes on the U.S. Atlantic coast in advance of a strong hurricane. My guess is that our skills at interdependence will soon get a good bit of practice, courtesy of Florence and/or other storms later in the season. My best wishes to all for adequate shelter from the storm—Happy Interdependence Day!     

Entitled, Endowed, Enabled

Entitled, Endowed, Enabled    —by Jinny Batterson

At this year’s Labor Day, I’m likely to be engaged in intense mental labor with friends and former colleagues, trying to make some sense of the somewhat shaky state of civil society in the United States of America in 2018. As the holiday approaches, my sense is that our uneasiness arises partly from confusion about being entitled, endowed, or enabled. Below are some as-yet-unfinished thoughts about how the three might be interrelated:  

A decade or so ago, a leader at an educational institution I value complained that students there had “a sense of entitlement.”  I wasn’t sure what he meant, and I wasn’t in a position to either validate or refuse his claim. Just now I looked up the definition of the phrase, and this is what a search engine produced:

“If someone has a sense of entitlement, that means the person believes he deserves certain privileges — and he’s arrogant about it. The term “culture of entitlement” suggests that many people now have highly unreasonable expectations about what they are entitled to.”  (from www.vocabulary.com)  

         I suppose the term “entitlement” derives from the honorific and/or hereditary titles that certain members of European nobility were given. Over time, such entitlement does not need to have anything to do with the person’s character or accomplishments. It cannot be revoked. 

The most famous phrase about “endowed” comes from one of our founding documents, the U.S. Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”  

A more recent application of “endowment” is the endowment effect (also known as divestiture aversion), the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them. Someone who has been “endowed” with say, a house, or a job, may feel that this endowment is permanent and react strongly when there is a perceived threat to his/her ownership. Institutions can also be “endowed” materially—we periodically hear figures about the size of Harvard’s endowment, not  often paying attention to the variability of such funds over time. In a different sense, we may talk of Dolly Parton’s “endowment,” likewise a not-entirely-permanent trait.  

What appeals to me more than either of the previous terms is “enabled.” To me, this term infers more active engagement by the person who’s enabled.  Some stories of enablement based on events at Special Olympics competitions and other sporting events give examples of teamwork, in which someone who may fall behind in the traditional sense is enabled by teammates to finish his/her race, enabling all to succeed together. The term is also used for the process of retraining someone who has lost previously available skills due to illness, accident, or other impediment.  

Reverting to endowment, though, I quote from the lead article of the constitution of my adoptive state of North Carolina. Borrowing from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the framers of this post-Civil-War constitution added a fourth endowment: the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.  

  May we all find ways to better balance entitlement, endowment, enablement as we move forward.    

 

  

Testing the Alarm System

Testing the Alarm System   —by Jinny Batterson

Wisps of smoke color our East Coast sky
As across our media screens dance
Sheets of flame from West Coast wildfires.

In Miami Beach, tourists get wet feet
Nearly every high tide. In Alaska, melting
Permafrost leaves larger and larger sinkholes.

From time to time, our mid-Atlantic region
Gets buffeted by hurricanes. Summers veer
Between drench and drought. Just now, neither.

I set out on an early morning walk to outpace
The heat and humidity that will settle all too soon,
Once the sun is well up and shade recedes.

Already, morning traffic is picking up along
The commuter artery where my walk begins.
I stay to the shady edge of the sidewalk.

My immediate goal is an off-road greenway;
Its entrance takes off just shy of a big new
Apartment complex.  Almost there–relief!

When I’d first started this walking loop several
Years ago, there were no apartments, only acres of
Second-growth woodland with a greenway in the middle.

I’d watched with dismay as the woods to the path’s left were reduced
To a mere comb-over, the rest cleared, gouged, then built over,
Paved or mulched, adorned with small shrubs and spindly saplings.

Just as I turn onto the path, a racket like the quacking
Of the Aflac duck, but amplified to ear-splitting intensity,
Erupts from somewhere within the apartment complex.

Three short blasts, short silence, three more, on and on.
No place to hide from the noise. No sirens, though.
No evidence of smoke or flame.  What gives?

Wandering the parking lot in search of an answer,
I eventually find a fellow in a hard hat getting
Out of a pickup.  “Is there an emergency?” 

“No, ma’am. They’re just testing out the alarm
System to make sure it works, before the next
Phase of the complex is opened for occupancy.” 

Mushrooming

Mushrooming   —by Jinny Batterson    

For the past several weeks, the weather near our central North Carolina condo has been steamy, with frequent afternoon and overnight thunderstorms. In many places, the ground has stayed damp. This year’s drenchings have brought out an abundant crop of late-summer mushrooms. Woodlands and fields are full of gilled mushrooms, sponge-bottomed mushrooms, veined mushrooms–the most evident types. Some are deadly poisonous, most are either distasteful or likely to cause digestive distress, a few are edible and choice. Lots of years of looking at and for mushrooms have given me a very basic knowledge plus the confidence to harvest one or two species that are distinctive enough and delicious enough to be worth gathering to eat. 

What many of us fail to realize is that what we call mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of plants whose network of nutrition-gathering mycelium can stretch underground for miles. The largest known single organism on earth, it turns out, is a honey mushroom in Oregon discovered during the 1990’s with a mycelium encompassing 2,384 acres, or about four square miles.

Whenever we humans get too taken with our own supposed dominance and power, it’s prudent to remember that mushrooms and their fungal ancestors have been around for way longer than us. They’ve survived many of the climactic cataclysms that occurred before mammalian life even existed. By weight, mushrooms and their mycelium are at least an order of  magnitude greater than the combined girth of all seven-plus billion of us humans.   

  Whenever we are tempted to get hung up on the variations of sexual relations among human adults, we might ponder the reproductive behavior of mushrooms, as described in this entry from the Cornell Mushroom blog (https://blog.mycology.cornell.edu/2010/06/02/a-fungus-walks-into-a-singles-bar/):

“ Among fungi, any individual can donate or receive genetic material–so you can already see we need to let go of the concept of gender. Let’s talk instead in terms of what mycologists call mating types. A fungus simply needs to find a mate of a different mating type. Of the fungi you might be familiar with, hmm, most species have only two mating types (they’re bipolar), and some have four or more possible mating types (they’re tetrapolar). Any particular individual of a species is just one mating type, of course. Most molds have two; many mushrooms and bracket fungi have four or more. A few fungi, like the unassuming split gill, Schizophyllum commune, have more than ten thousand!”

My first recollection of mushrooms came from the Lewis Carroll story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As my parents read to me, I marveled at illustrations of statuesque gilled mushrooms. My parents cautioned me against imitating Alice: “Don’t ever eat a toadstool,” they insisted.

Later, once our family got a television and started watching the evening news, I sometimes saw images of “mushroom clouds”—the kind formed by explosions of the nuclear bombs then being tested above-ground. A history series featured photos and brief videos of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, creating mushroom-shaped clouds miles above their point of impact. My parents told me to be afraid of mushroom clouds, too, but were somewhat at a loss about how to respond. My dad constructed a bomb shelter that might or might not have provided sufficient protection in the area near Washington D.C. where we then lived; my mom discussed with her women’s group whether the milk delivered to our doorstep had dangerous levels of strontium-90, a calcium-like carcinogenic isotope whose presence in milk became elevated during peak nuclear testing years.   

Given our current climate, in which both environmental and governmental problems can  on some days seem to be mushrooming out of control, paying a bit more attention to real mushrooms can be reassuring. These humble living things have adapted to climates that were previously supposed incapable of supporting life; they can spring up when least expected; their underground support networks are everywhere.

Dog Days Dreaming

Dog Days Dreaming     —by Jinny Batterson

It’s hot and muggy outside, pretty typical for central North Carolina this time of year. I’m used to calling late July and August “dog days,” figuring that even dogs with any sense would spend this part of the year lolling in the shade (or, if available, in an air-conditioned interior). It’s also a time when summer begins to drag a bit. My recollection of “dog days” during my schooling is that by this part of August, I was bored, “dog tired” of school vacation. Going to the swimming pool, attending a fireman’s carnival, getting a root beer float or a hand-dipped ice cream at our local soda fountain—none of these activities had quite the same allure as earlier in the summer. I was beginning to long for the uptick in social life that went with school’s return. Some of my friends probably felt the same way, but we were reluctant to share our views out loud. Instead, we hewed to a teen party line that summer was all fun and school was a drag. Turns out the term “dog days” has less to do with our pet canines than with the pre-dawn appearance of Sirius, the “dog star,” during a roughly 40-day period in July and August, noted since Greek and Roman times.

Sleep research indicates that most of us dream. Fewer of us remember our dreams on waking, especially during these groggy, hot days of late summer. That’s true for me. More often than dream memories, I’ll awaken with a tune or fragment of a lyric in my head. Recently, I woke up with the first verse of “America the Beautiful” as an ear worm. Why that song? Why this time of year? Going down a rabbit hole via online search engines, I found three additional verses, along with some background about the author and the conditions that prompted the song’s writing. 

The lyrics for “America the Beautiful” were penned by Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor at Wellesley College. She began the poem while spending the summer of 1893 teaching English at a school in Colorado Springs. She and several other teachers made a day trip up nearby Pike’s Peak.  From its summit, they could see the fertile plains below. Bates scribbled the first lines of what later became “America the Beautiful” into a small notebook she carried with her:

“Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”

In 1893, there was a major economic downturn, creating distress for many laboring families and farmers. This became a theme of the second verse, which implores God to help mend America’s flaws:

“America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-countrol, thy liberty in law.”

The poem first appeared in print in a weekly journal around the time of Independence Day in 1895. Bates included a third verse lauding the sacrifices of earlier soldiers: 

“Oh, beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life.
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.” 

Bates’ final expanded version, published in 1913, contained a fourth verse laying out a vision of an America that lived up to its ideals:  

“Oh, beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.” 

In 1918, when the armistice ending the first world war was announced, U.S. soldiers stationed in Europe burst out singing “America the Beautiful.” The song, much easier than “The Star Spangled Banner,” has since become an unofficial American anthem. It’s been performed by dozens of American pop idols, including Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles. Although it’s rare to hear all four verses, versions have entertained audiences at Super Bowls, presidential inaugurals, and hosts of Independence Day celebrations. One of the most moving performances was a guitar-accompanied rendition by country singer Willie Nelson and a host of entertainment luminaries in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

In previous U.S. political cycles, a waking aspect of “dog days” has often been a brief reprieve from political campaigning. Media outlets have provided less news about our government, which sort of “goes on vacation” along with many of the rest of us. Campaign advertising, social media posts, email blasts, robocalls have stayed quiescent until after Labor Day in September. No such luck this year. We’re being subjected to death by a thousand tweets.

Regardless, until after Labor Day, I’ll keep ignoring as much of the political hoopla as I can. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the August 12, 1859 birthday of Katharine Lee Bates. I’m going to relish her lyrics of patriot dreams of an America, with our caring people and stunning nature, that will one day be beautiful again.