Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hallelujah! Robots Milk Cows!

Graniteville, Vt. (AP)- (Excerpt) Robots have taken up residence at some small and medium sized dairy farms across the country, providing reliable and more efficient labor and helping businesses remain viable.

All praise to technology and computer geeks.  I take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about you.  You’ve transformed the life of the dairy farmer, the most oppressed, confined, and tethered of all farmers in history bar none.  This is the best thing since sliced bread.  Who am I kidding, its way better than sliced bread.  It’s freedom.  Pure unadulterated freedom.  God bless you programmers locked in rooms unable to speak intelligibly because of the code running through your heads.  You wonderful geeks may not even know what you’ve done.

My family and their predecessors milked Jersey cows on a small farm between Danvers and Mackinaw for God knows how long, probably 100 years.  They delivered raw whole milk, coffee cream, and whipping cream to the people who lived in town until pasteurization requirements put such small dairies out of business.  They made their own butter and fed the skim milk to the cats.  In 1941 they invested in the future as they saw it and built a modern state of the art dairy barn and milk house that complied with looming health laws.  They closed the Danvers delivery operation and shipped Grade A milk to Prairie Farms Dairy until my Mom and Dad retired and sold the cows in 1979.  Let’s just take a stab at quantifying how much work that represents.

If the Sloanes or those before them began milking cows in 1879 (that’s possible) and the McClures took up that task after them not stopping until 1979, they milked cows for 36,500 days not screwing around with leap years and the like.  Dairy farmers milk cows twice a day rain or shine, sickness or health, weather so bad you can hardly get to the barn.  That’s 73,000 milkings.  Spouses and children die, wars break out, calamities occur, tornadoes threaten, ice storms force you to chip open the milk house door, but twice a day you quietly go to the dairy barn, open the door, feed the cows, and relieve them of their milk.  Their milk is both your food and your livelihood.  Selling milk is a steady year round source of revenue.  Your labor is rewarded, but oh my how it affects your life.  Morning and night, morning and night, milking cows with no end in sight.  Committing yourself to dairy farming is like a sentencing yourself to a lifetime of hard labor.  Until now, the dawning of a new age, when cows milk themselves with the aid of robots.

In the past if you milked cows you could of course go anywhere you wanted.  It’s still a free country.  You can go anywhere, after you milk the cows in the morning that is, and as long as you can get home by 4:30 to milk them again.
Want to look at that more closely?  You get up, often in the dark, put on your chore clothes and make your way to the kitchen.  Mom has made coffee.  You may have some, with conversation, or you may just sit there under the dim kitchen light and listen to AM radio; ads, jingles (still in my head), and bouncy announcers.  You go to the basement and put on your coveralls and boots, hat and gloves.  Outside you make your way to the barn.  In winter the cows are kept inside, two rows of twelve facing outside windows.  When you open the door an entire row of twelve cows facing you, twenty four big black eyes, look at your expectantly.  You are their keeper.  You know them each by name.  The first thing you do is feed them.

In summer when the cows are on night pasture the cows are outside the barn, waiting at the door.  You put scoops of feed in the manger in front of each cow’s place, knowing which stall each cow goes to, adjusting the amount of feed, more for the heavy milkers, less for the lightweights, only half for cows gone dry, a month or so away from delivering their next calf. You slide the barn door open a foot or so.  The cows look up at you expectantly; docile, patient, and hungry.  You slide the doors completely open and they file in, step across the gutter, put their necks through the steel stanchions, always the same stall, and begin to eat.  When they are all in you close the stanchions, locking them in, turn on the pump (an electric motor creating a vacuum line up and down the rows of cows), bring in the milkers, pails, and wash water and begin.

24 cows, 12 petcocks providing vacuum to three Surge milking machines, which are suspended under the cow’s udder on straps called surcingles over the cows back by their hip bones.  Eight changes at the most if all 24 cows are being milked, five minutes or so per change, forty minutes for the milking itself.  Chores, the generic word for our morning and evening tending to the cows, took longer.  Hour and fifteen minutes.  Less if you hurried.  Twice a day, every day, for what seemed like the rest of your life.  You could do it yourself if you had to, but it was best done with two.
The invention that was most revolutionary for dairy farmers, after electricity, was the milking machine.  Prior to that you sat beside every cow and milked them individually by hand.  I cannot imagine.   From time to time a cow with an injury or mastitis required one or more quarters be milked by hand and I would do it, unless Dad beat me to it.  Hand milking connects you with the cow in an almost meditative way.  It not only takes longer it allows you to do nothing else.  Two teats at a time, alternate squeezes until dry, repeat.  Milking machines introduced speed and freedom to the dairy barn.  While the machine manipulates the cow’s teats four at a time and extracts the milk, rubber sleeves automatically inflating and collapsing in stainless steel cups, you could carry milk to the milk house, wash the teats of the next cows to be milked, feed hay, any number of things.  Besides your mind going far away during hand milking your hands tire.

“Makes your grip strong,” my Dad would say.  Dad was a positive guy.

Positivity helped dairy farmers survive I think.

The dairy invention that revolutionized milking in my lifetime was the barn cleaner.  The Badger Company out of Wisconsin made them popular.  Investing in a barn cleaner relieved the dairy farmer from a very important but unpleasant task.  Shoveling shit.

To accommodate bigger herds dairy technology went to barns with milking parlors and lounging sheds sometime in the sixties and the cows shit in large areas that could be cleaned with tractors and loaders.  Our barn with stanchions became the cow’s winter home.  A good dairy cow eats alfalfa hay and ground feed voraciously, drinks a lot of water, stays skinny, and turns all her energy into milk production and producing calves.  Because of all that, dairy cows produce manure in prodigious amounts.  That manure, in a smaller confined stanchion barn, must be removed daily.  Add that to your winter chores. Here’s how that goes.
Empty two fifty foot concrete gutters full of cow manure by shoveling one scoop of shit at a time into a wheelbarrow.  When full, brimming, wheel the barrow up a ramp out a side door, across a wooden runway, dump it into the waiting manure spreader, bring it back on the same path, and prepare to refill.  Repeat twelve times.  On a cold and windy winter day when the manure was steaming my brother Darwin, just a kid, was emptying a loaded wheelbarrow into the spreader and a gust of wind blew him headfirst into the spreader.  He got out, but not before cow shit filled his ears and nose.  All kids, they say, need to learn how and when to keep their mouth shut.  My older brother learned the hard way.  Darwin was never fond of milking cows.

When the gutters were empty of manure we spread crushed limestone in the gutter, and when the spreader was full (every third day or so) hooked the tractor onto the manure spreader, affectionately called the terd hearse, and drove it to the assigned field where we engaged the chain drive which fed the manure to the back beaters and flung shit high in the air.  We drove over the field till empty, watching for wind and changing direction cautiously, then drove back and put the manure spreader back into position.  Elapsed time from the start of shoveling to the end?  That easily averaged an hour a day from October till April.  Sundays too.

A barn cleaner like the one Badger sold had a powerful electric motor at the end of an elevated steel chute that dragged a continuous heavy linked chain with paddles through the gutters, automatically pushing the cow manure up the chute where it emptied into the manure spreader.  Voila.  A load of cow shit ready to spread untouched by human hands.  All that was required of the dairy farmer was to throw a lever on an electrical box.  The first time we saw it work we had huge smiles on our faces. Technology.  We loved it.  Really, who cared how much it cost?

There was symmetry to the kind of farming we did on that small farm.  Dad rotated crops on all the tillable acres: soybeans, corn, oats, and alfalfa.  We had permanent pasture with timber and a creek on land that otherwise couldn’t be farmed.  We scooped forty scoops of oats and sixty scoops of ear corn in a little box wagon we hauled to town behind a tractor each week to the feed mill at the elevator.  They added soybean meal, salt, and molasses and ground it while we waited.  The seal on the molasses valve leaked and I always got a thick finger full of molasses off it.  We brought the wagon home full of feed and scooped it back into the feed room in the barn.  Scooped it twice-first as whole grain next as feed.

We made two thousand bales or so of alfalfa hay each year and threw small bales down from the mow to feed the cows twice each day they were not on pasture. In addition we made oat straw for bedding.  The grain and hay the cows ate and of course the pasture they grazed all came from the land around us.  We drank raw milk from the cows and ate the cows as well, butchering them ourselves when I was young and later at the slaughter house in town.  We stored the meat at the locker plant, a big communal freezer in Danvers, until we got our own deep freeze at the house. We fertilized our fields with manure from the cows which in turn helped grow the crops we fed the cows. The cows not only made us money but fed us too.  Same with the chickens.  Milk, eggs, meat, and the garden dominated our diet.  Mom canned vegetables; sweet corn, green beans, pickles, pickled beets, and on and on.  We were organic and didn’t know it.  My Dad, being a modern farmer, used commercial fertilizer and other chemicals as did neighboring farmers in the grain fields when they became available, but he never stopped rotating crops or spreading manure.  It’s hard to find that kind of farm now.  But I have a feeling, and a hope, that technology may make it possible for dairy to achieve small scale viability through new efficiencies like these robotic milkers.

Modern farmers are using them to save labor costs, something we never incurred on our farm, because the family did all the milking.  We were a farm family.  My brothers and I helped my Dad, but no one helped as much as my Mom.  She was in the barn with the rest of us, and cooked all the meals and did the dishes besides.  I don’t think farmers valued their labor then in terms of dollars.  Putting long hours in on the farm was simply what farmers did.  The temptation, perhaps economic necessity, of working in town for wages to supplement farm income probably killed off small dairy farms.  Consider the winter work schedule circa 1960 for our small scale dairy operation like ours in Danvers.
6:30-8:00 a.m.                Morning milking, feed the calves
8:00-9:00                        Breakfast
9:00-10:30                      Wash the milkers, clean the barn, spread manure
10:30-noon                     Other farm work
NOON                            Dinner (followed by my Dad’s big nap)
1:30-4:30 p.m.                Other farm tasks
4:30-6:00                        Evening milking, feed the calves
6:00-6:30                        Wash the milkers
6:30 p.m.                         Supper
6:30-bedtime                   Leisure

Take that day and repeat it for the entire number of days you own a herd of dairy cows.  That was your life as a dairy farmer.  You could squeeze in a day off the farm from time to time, but only between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and certainly not two days in a row, lest you fall behind.  In addition to the milking you had the grain farming; planting, harvesting, and cultivation, plus making hay, repairing equipment, caring for the pasture, cutting thistles, making fence, shelling corn, countless other tasks that farmers simply did. Take away the every day, twice a day task of milking however, and you might be able to take a job that actually paid you money directly for hours worked.  As tractors and implements improved and got larger, enabling farmers to plant and care for more grain acreage, selling dairy cows became easier not only because the milk check became smaller as a proportion of farm income, but because by doing so you could escape a grueling every day schedule of hard work.   You could begin to imagine such a thing as “vacation,” something we never experienced as a family.  I take that back.

When I was eight we drove to Ft. Leonard Wood Kentucky to watch my brother graduate from Army basic training.  We were gone three days and two nights and stayed in motels for the first time ever.  That was the extent of travel with my parents as a kid.  In our absence our neighbor Henry milked the cows.

Modern dairy farmers in the United States have been using migrant labor to milk cows, and it has been in short supply.  In the Netherlands, where labor is more generously rewarded, more than half the dairies now use robotic milkers.  Jesse and Jennifer Lambert of Graniteville Vermont just took out a seven year $380,000 loan to install two robots and retrofit a barn at their organic dairy farm.  They were looking for a more consistent way to milk their cows, spend more time with their newborn son, and at the same time save money.  They are saving $60,000 a year in labor costs that would have gone to a full time and part time employee, and are producing 20% more milk.
“No one wants to milk cows,” Jennifer Lambert said.  “Especially on the weekend.”

She also thinks the robots lead to more relaxed cows.  When a cow wants to be milked, it simply steps up into a stall, grain is dumped in front of it, and an arm reaches under its body to wash the teats.  Next a laser scans the cow’s body, and the arm attaches a cup to each of the four teats, milking them individually.  In addition, the technology collects and stores data about each cow’s production, body temperature, weight, and number of visits to the milking system and sends all that data to the farmer’s computer.

Wow.  You could sit in the barn on a lawn chair and read your smart phone or kindle while all that was going on.  Or stay in the house and read about it later on your computer.
I worked on a dairy farm near Aberdeen, Scotland in the winter of 1975 that milked 260 cows aided by a computerized system.  As groups of twenty cows came in the milking parlor we entered each cow’s number, printed on large ear tags, into a computer.  That number generated a portion of feed that was consistent with where they were in their cycle, cutting back as their milk production waned, doing what Dad did with a feed scoop and the knowledge of each cow in the barn.  It was nothing more a feed and data system.  But I never imagined a machine could milk a cow.  Why not I wonder?  Now 40 years later it’s a reality.

It would be wonderful if the cost of robotic dairy technology came down.  With even less costly labor small farmers might once maintain dairy herds, and we could conceivably return to drinking milk from local farms, perhaps even delicious raw milk.  Like small batch craft beer and whiskey, small batch locally produced dairy products, not only organic milk but cheese and butter as well, could have a resurgence.  I’d be the first in line, as long as I didn’t have to milk the cows.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Compromise is Not a Dirty Word

Good news drives out the bad easily when we let it.  There are so many things we wish would go away that we crave distraction.  And so the Cub’s post season play takes over our attention along with the Democratic Presidential Candidate debate and we in Illinois and Americans everywhere glide through the waning months of 2015 as if all were well.  Just six days ago there were not one but two more school shootings, and an outcry from the highest levels for increased gun control measures that swiftly faded.  In order to protect each other we have gladly taken our shoes off in airports for fifteen years because of a single and unsuccessful shoe bombing attempt, but yet we shrug off any suggestion of efforts to control gun violence no matter how many children are killed.  I digress.

Two weekends ago we got together with family on Sunday for a brunch in Bridgeport, a neighborhood in Chicago.  Folks were in from Florida we don’t often see so we used their visit as an occasion to eat and drink and talk.  Nice day.

I was interested in what we talked about, or I guess what we didn’t talk about.  Though most of us were from Illinois we didn’t talk about state politics.  The rise in Chicago property taxes was touched on briefly but nothing on the budget stalemate in Springfield.  If the school shooting in Oregon, gun control or the lack of it, was discussed I wasn’t in the room.

We did talk about Syrian refugees, mainly I think because a Bosnian couple, neighbors of our hosts, were there as guests.  There were refugees themselves once, and have a special feeling for people displaced by politics and violence.  That’s why it’s good for me to get out of the shack and talk to people. I get the benefit of different perspectives.

We talked about each other.  We talked a lot about the Cubs.  We talked about the food, family that weren’t there, when we saw each other last and when we’ll be together again.  Everyone has personal news, things going on in their lives, and we’re nosy enough to want to know all about it.  I’m not sure what we talked about, but we talked and talked and talked.  Hours of talking, three or four conversations at once, catching up, learning new things, hearing from ourselves the answers to questions about our own lives we so rarely put into words.  It was good.  You might go as far as to call it wonderful.  I not sure why we don’t do it more often.

But after I was home, and thought of what wasn’t said, I tried to answer this:  If we don’t talk about urgent and pressing problems to our closest family and friends, who do we talk to?  Our Face Book friends?  That’s not what I call a real conversation.

On the night of the lunar eclipse I had a rare conversation about state government with regular folks.  We were sitting around Weber grills talking about the recent departure of the head of the Illinois’ Department of Agriculture, a local farmer from Seneca.  He was summarily dismissed by Gov. Rauner for saying the wrong thing, which was most likely true.  I don’t know what it was, some say the reporting of attendance numbers at the fair, but the recently hired head of the state fair resigned in protest of his boss’s firing.  Shutting people up by essentially eliminating them is to me one of our new Governor’s least attractive qualities.  In any case, I mentioned that there was some controversy about going ahead full throttle with Illinois’ two state fairs, Springfield and DuQuoin, in the absence of a budget and one of my friend’s reacted by saying

“You can’t cancel the State Fair.  All those 4-H kids that work so hard all year?  Take the fair away from them?”

I appreciate my friend for a lot of things but especially for thinking of kids.  He and I are both involved with our local county fair.  I’m a volunteer judge and he works year round to organize the dog show portion of the 4-H fair.  We jokingly call him the superintendent of dogs.  He’s a retired (but still part time) educator and a smart guy.  That he thought of those 4-H kids right away is consistent with his values.  He’s a good guy.  I hope my answer didn’t offend him.

“We can’t cancel the State Fair but we can take away day care for thousands of Illinois preschool kids whose families are poor?  We take care of the 4-H kids but abandon low income families who used to qualify for day care help?”

Another friend chimed in, “If you cancelled the state fair there would be a big ruckus.  But take benefits away from poor people and you hear very little.  Either no one notices or no one cares.”

I refuse to believe no one cares about low income parents and their children although evidence of that being true abounds.  The conversation ended there.  We just looked at each other and moved on to other topics.  Really, what more can you say?  Even more difficult, what can you do?  We’re a long way from another election in Illinois.

Here’s how ere’s Hereit has gone down in Illinois.  90% of the activities Illinois funded last year continue, cobbled together without a budget by the two appropriation bills Rauner did approve, court orders, and consent decrees.  The remaining 10% is in “no budget limbo” meaning contracts were not issued, or spending for contracts issued is not authorized.  What’s not being paid?  The state supported activities that no one notices or no one cares about.  Or in other words, the things you can get away with politically.

Political leverage for a quick budget passage was severely compromised when state employees were paid on time and public schools payments issued.  With paychecks flowing and schools open, and various other state functions secured by court rulings, Illinois entered a protracted stalemate that allows my life and perhaps yours to be affected very little, while screwing the less fortunate.  There have been a few exceptions.

Rauner’s administration closed the Illinois State Museum (which I’ve been to) in Springfield and it’s four satellite locations along with the World Shooting and Recreation Center in Sparta operated by the Department of Natural Resources (which I didn’t know existed). In both cases he laid off the administrative staff, but continues to pay the unionized state employees working there pending a court decision and so saves little money.  It is estimated that the museum closing will amount to savings of maybe $400,000.  Chump change really when compared to this year’s deficit estimated at $5 Billion to $8 Billion dollars if we don’t raise taxes to their former level.  That’s billion with a B you know.  Each billion comes with 9 zeros. Want to see just one?  Unless you’re a hedge fund manager or a politician you aren’t used to seeing numbers this big.

Last year’s appropriations were about $66 Billion in Illinois, so a $5-8 Billion shortfall is a big problem, without even counting unpaid bills and all the fooling around the politicians do with numbers.  It’s all rather symbolic, the cuts and the rhetoric around them.  It’s a play for publicity and a ploy to influence opinion rather than an attempt to actual govern.  As the days go by and we don’t collect more income tax (you know, that temporary increase both parties allowed to expire January 1) the deficit just gets deeper.  Both sides know we need those taxes.  Who will get the blame for raising them is the only question remaining.  We’re watching a slow shutdown of state government.

I did check the sticker on my license plate when Jesse White said he was no longer mailing out expiration notices.  I have missed buying a new sticker before even when he does mail me the stuff.  But really, my life goes on relatively unaffected by the state budget.  How about yours?  You do realize don’t you that others are not so lucky.  After all, I’m on social security and about to be covered by Medicare, both federal programs.  Those who depend on the State of Illinois are the ones who are screwed.  In particular those that depend on that big fund in Illinois called the general fund that accounts for about $36 B of the $66 B Illinois spends.
State governments make public policy for their own citizens.  While they pass through a lot of federal money, about half their budget in most states for restricted purposes, states also decide how to spend their own tax revenue (which comes from state income tax, sales tax, gambling, and more) to fund and carry out those policies and fund priorities they create.  States have different problems. They spend their own dollars on public education, health care including mental health, public safety, child welfare and day care, social services, support for commerce and industry, agriculture, infrastructure improvements, state parks, all kinds of things, where they see fit.  It’s not fluff, this general fund spending.  On the contrary the general fund supports basic services that help keep the people of the state whole and healthy.  That spending improves and enhances the lives of Illinois’ citizens.  It’s government, and when it’s done right its good government.  The plan which carries out that spending is the annual budget.  Within it you can see the state’s priorities.

Illinois has not had a budget for over 100 days.  Who’s getting screwed because of that?  The people who depend on the activities the general fund supports which have not this year been granted a political pass.  That’s who.  Here’s a partial list:

·       Low income parents seeking day care
·       The mentally ill
·       Homeless and troubled youth
·       Drug addicts and alcoholics
·       The developmentally disabled
·       Seniors and handicapped persons benefitting from personal assistants
There are basic services needed and provided to vulnerable Illinois citizens that cannot be categorized as medical, fit under the rubric of health, and paid for by your health insurance policy, Medicare or Medicaid.  How and why did those services develop?  They developed because Illinois saw a need for them and appropriated money to fill those needs.  Do you see a pattern in that list?  Would you characterize any of those groups as connected, politically active, and vocal?  Many, perhaps most, of those Illinoisans are served by local not for profit agencies in your community whose mission is to help them.  They previously had grants and contracts, many held for thirty plus years, paid from general revenue funds that allowed them to carry on those activities.  Some of those organizations, especially those in rural areas without access to community foundations or significant corporate support, operate with budgets that are 90% or more state funded.  Last year’s payments, chronically late, have stopped dribbling in.  If your local agency is still open it has either spent from reserve funds or borrowed money to fund those activities since July 1.
In some cases besides not paying the agencies, the Rauner administration went out of its way to change eligibility requirements.  The low income families who last year could earn dollars up to a ceiling and still receive subsidized day care saw that ceiling drop by two thirds.  It is estimated that 90% of Illinois’ low income parents who received help paying for day care last year no longer qualify.  It was in legislative hearings about the effects of these emergency rule changes that Linda Satterfield of DHS was forced out of state government for telling the truth, suffering a fate similar to the Secretary of Agriculture.  Asked her opinion of what effect those changes would have she said “devastating.”  And that is pretty much the last word we’ve heard from Rauner’s people on that topic.

Illinois expanded its support for low income working families for a reason.  In 1995 Bill Clinton and Congress passed, with bi-partisan support, welfare reform which put a time limit on payments to low income mothers.  It worked.  Welfare rolls plummeted.  It worked in no small part because states like Illinois kept some of the savings they achieved through reduced welfare payments and invested them in sensible services like subsidized day care for working parents.  What do you suppose four months of a reversal of that policy has done to those families, some of them single parent families working minimum wage jobs?  Devastating is probably a fair word wouldn’t you say?
Few if any of these devastating measures have been reversed in the legislature.  Republicans have taken to voting present as a block, not wishing to vote no and appear unkind, which forces Democrats to take all the action, something they find impossible to do.  Politics won’t solve this I’m afraid.  Good government could.
Why have Illinois politicians put vulnerable Illinois citizens in this position?  Collective bargaining and term limits?  Future political control?  To advance one party at the expense of the other?  Really?  I think that’s shameful.  They should go into session next week and immediately do what is needed to take care of people who desperately need their government to act responsibly.  After they do, they can talk all they want.  I would tell them this if they would listen; talk till you’re blue in the face, beat each other up in the media, take polls, send out fliers, campaign all year, try to buy votes.  Go ahead.  Who cares?  We’ll decide your future when next we vote in any case.  But do none of that till you’ve passed a budget.  Not another word until you do your job.
Word has it Rauner and Madigan have not met since May.  Is that possible?  Surely they or their people are meeting behind closed doors and not telling us.  If they are I hope they are talking about things that really matter, like pension reform and an enlightened tax policy.  We deserve a very public discourse, so we can be better informed and thus smarter about whom we vote for next time.  But as for how to move forward, I suggest compromise.  Surely they remember compromise, that concept in which you get some of what you want but not everything.  You work to accomplish goals over time rather than insist it all happen immediately. Compromise does however requires listening, a certain amount of trust, and some faith.  All of those qualities appear to be in short supply in Springfield.
Compromise is not a dirty word.  It is a useful, even critical, strategy to employ when the plan you propose has components which are plainly non-starters.  Wholesale change to collective bargaining in Illinois is going nowhere, as are universal term limits, but I have an idea for a compromise that might work for the latter. Term limits for publicly elected officials have been talked about for many years and few governments embrace them.  But here’s one that could work.  Limit the number of years a single legislator can hold a leadership position-Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, Majority Whip, etc. which are determined by votes of their peers.  Limiting those terms would guarantee new people and new personalities regularly come into leadership.  It may sound small but that is a change that could shake up Springfield in a quiet but positive way.

I didn’t vote for Rauner but I didn’t think it was awful that Illinois changed governors. I like change. And while I didn’t agree with his approach to government and worried about his lack of experience in government, I thought Rauner was smart.  Turns out he’s just as pig headed as the rest.  Except for overdue and needed changes to Illinois’ criminal justice system, which enjoyed bi partisan support, his administration in its first year has accomplished little.  To the contrary, it is doing a lot of damage.  I guess it shows you don’t have to be a career politician to be unbending and inflexible.

What we need in Springfield and throughout Illinois are politicians of whatever background or experience who keep the best interests of the people they serve foremost in their mind.  I think neither Rauner nor our current legislative leaders are doing that.  I think both sides have another agenda.  I think we’re in big trouble in Illinois, and no one is leading us out of it.

We need a good week in Illinois government very soon. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Writing Early in the Monring

There’s moonlight on the shack porch right now so bright.  I followed bits of it, circles, irregular shapes, of such bright light it lit up my shoes when I stepped in them through the yard from the house.  I thought it must be the streetlight but no, it was the moon high overhead shining through the trees.  That same eclipsing moon we saw fading away Sunday night is now high and bright at 6:00 a.m. Friday, just a sliver gone on one side, four days past full, not full again till nearly Halloween.

I’m in a race now, I’ve made a list, of things that must be done before winter comes.  For appearance sake I started with the hedges in the front yard.  I have a privet hedge between our house and the north neighbor that is my job to cut twice a year at least.  Trash trees grow, and stick out the top, faster than the hedge.  They are rooted between the hedge canes, nearly indistinguishable from the plant favored and nurtured, not to be cut down. It’s the same knot of wood at the base each year, long clipped from my near thirty years of living here, clipped again this year, the offender drug from the hedge and put in a pile.

Same with the lilacs.  I have a maple trying to grow that I thwart every year, and another nameless damn plant with rough ugly leaves that grows amazingly fast.  Some people pull these offenders out by the roots with chains and tractors I suppose, others paint them with poison hoping not to kill the desired plants around them.  I just cut them.  They grow back.  It’s a yearly thing.

And trim.  The lilacs if left alone would have grown all over my neighbor Bill’s windows by now.  As it was they were fast encroaching on his siding and out of control.  I took not only the new hand shears but the lopping shears with the big handles (Dull and bent, I need new ones) and the cheap saw I got at a yard sale.   Hacking away, feeling the muscles of my hands and shoulders tire as I made huge piles of branches.  I went on from the lilacs to the trees at the edge of the yard.  Seedlings from the redbuds take root and intrude.  The willow grows over the day lilies.  The choke cherry wants to extend its branches onto the shack roof.  I deny them.  I cut low branches, take out saplings, and this year eliminated an entire old bush half rotted at the root.  I’m a destroyer separating the yard from the chaos of the ravine.

When I enter the ravine I switch tactics.  It’s not my job to order that space.  While some neighbors clear the slope I’ve let mine go wild.  In the ravine I only remove traces of mankind and pull dead branches hung up on live ones, throwing them on the ground where they can rot proper.  It is life and death in there.  Trees sprout but, unable to move, are doomed for lack of light and die stunted and forlorn.  They can only hope the trees above them die while they’re still alive and give them chance to grow.  And they do, they die and rot in place and crash down. The ravine, a steep slope leading to a skinny creek, is littered with the trunks and branches of dead trees.  Too steep to haul them up for firewood I let them lay, let it all go.  There’s poison oak that grows in there, and wild grapevine but little else.  Shade, merely the absence of light, prevents the growth of grass or weeds.

I find a spent and rusted fuse on the ravine slope.  We have only circuit breakers.  It must have been there for thirty years.  I pick up five aluminum beer cans, two Styrofoam cups, a sheet of plastic nearly covered in loose soil and half rotted wood, and a wolverine snuff can.  I look for traces of the dead animal that caused the stink weeks ago but find nothing.  I wrap the trash in the plastic and carry it out.  Though just outside my shack window, there is no need to venture into the ravine again till spring.  Its best left alone.

This morning my hands hurt.  I have little scrapes and pokes from the wood I’ve been handling, and they’re a little stiff like the rest of me.  Today I have to trim a little more then burn what I’ve cut down.  Maybe at the end of the day we’ll roast hot dogs over the fire pit.
I read this morning in The Writer’s Almanac that crazy Wallace Stevens poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” and a bit of his life story along with Graham Greene’s.  It is said that Graham Greene realized as a young writer that if he wrote but 500 words a day he would write more books than even the most prolific writers.   And so he did, every day, write 500 words and was so strict with himself he sometimes stopped in mid sentence.

The word sentence above was 831 and I’m just getting warmed up.  I wrote a 2,710 word blog post since Monday that I’ll save for next week, worked on finishing a short story, and outlined a possible novel this week all on top of lots of texts and FB posts and other miscellaneous scribbling.  I don’t have as much time as Graham Greene did when he was young. And then again, Graham’s stuff is polished and elegant.  It doesn’t look like I’ll be polished and elegant.  You can’t have everything.

Good luck to you in your preparations for winter.  Me?  I have things to write.  On top of that there is a hedge to trim, a shed to shingle, branches to burn, wood to split, jerk and chili paste to make and miles to go before I sleep.  That 'miles to go' line belongs to Robert Frost.  Then there's this:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.  
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

That is the first stanza of Wallace Steven's famous poem.  Look up the second and last stanza which is even better, more crazy than the first.  Aren't you glad the bunch of them; Wallace, Graham, and Robert, gave us this stuff?

P.S.-While you're at it, look up the meaning of concupiscent.  Who knew?