This Thing Called Courage

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Real News from Iraq

THIS IS FROM TODAY'S TOM'S DISPATCH. I'm posting it here because you're not likely to see it anywhere else. This is the type of reporting the Globe and Times used to do, before they started focusing on the hot real estate market and that trendy new restraurant down the block.

Tom Dispatch
posted 2008-06-29 16:58:20
Tomgram: The Urge to Surge
[Note for TomDispatch readers: The following piece offers a picture of the Bush administration's 18-month "surge" in Iraq that, I believe, you'll find nowhere else. Something similar could be said of all the pieces collected in the new book, The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire. Collectively, they offer a remarkable sense of what not just but the political Internet had to offer that you couldn't -- and, to a large extent, still can't -- find in the mainstream media. I hope those of you who have followed this site will consider picking up a copy of the book as a gesture of support for the work done here since we came online in December 2002. You may think you're doing TomDispatch a favor (and indeed you are), but open the covers, begin reading, and you'll find that you've done something for yourself as well. Tom]

The Good News in Iraq(Don't Count on It)By Tom Engelhardt
On March 19, 2003, as his shock-and-awe campaign against Iraq was being launched, George W. Bush addressed the nation. "My fellow citizens," he began, "at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger." We were entering Iraq, he insisted, "with respect for its citizens, for their great civilization and for the religious faiths they practice. We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people."
Within weeks, of course, that "great civilization" was being looted, pillaged, and shipped abroad. Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship was no more and, soon enough, the Iraqi Army of 400,000 had been officially disbanded by L. Paul Bremer, the head of the occupying Coalition Provisional Authority and the President's viceroy in Baghdad. By then, ministry buildings -- except for the oil and interior ministries -- were just looted shells. Schools, hospitals, museums, libraries, just about everything that was national or meaningful, had been stripped bare. Meanwhile, in their new offices in Saddam's former palaces, America's neoconservative occupiers were already bringing in the administration's crony corporations -- Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR, Bechtel, and others -- to finish off the job of looting the country under the rubric of "reconstruction." Somehow, these "administrators" managed to "spend" $20 billion of Iraq's oil money, already in the "Development Fund for Iraq," even before the first year of occupation was over -- and to no effect whatsoever. They also managed to create what Ed Harriman in the London Review of Books labeled "the least accountable and least transparent regime in the Middle East." (No small trick given the competition.)
Before the Sunni insurgency even had a chance to ramp up in 2003, they were already pouring billions of U.S. tax dollars into what would become their massive military mega-bases meant to last a millennium, and, of course, they were dreaming about opening Iraq's oil industry to the major oil multinationals and to a privatized future as an oil spigot for the West.
On May 1, 2003, six weeks after he had announced his war to the nation and the world, the President landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier returning from the Persian Gulf where its planes had just launched 16,500 missions and dropped 1.6 million pounds of ordnance on Iraq. From its flight deck, he spoke triumphantly, against the backdrop of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, assuring Americans that we had "prevailed." "Today," he said, "we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians." In fact, according to Human Rights Watch, the initial shock-and-awe strikes he had ordered killed only civilians, possibly hundreds of them, without touching a single official of Saddam Hussein's "regime."
Who's Counting Now?
Since that first day of "liberation," Iraqis have never stopped dying in prodigious numbers. Now, more than five years after the U.S. "prevailed" with such "precision," a more modest version of the same success story has once again taken the beaches of the mainstream media, if not by storm, then by siege. When it comes to Iraq, the good news is unavoidable. It's in the air. Not victory exactly, but a slow-motion movement toward a "stable" Iraq, a country with which we might be moderately content.
The President's surge -- those extra 30,000 ground troops sent into Iraq in the first half of 2007 -- has, it is claimed, proven the negativity of all the doubters and critics unwarranted. Indeed, it is now agreed, security conditions have improved significantly and in ways "that few thought likely a year ago."
You already know the story well enough. It turns out that, as in Vietnam many decades ago, the U.S. military is counting like mad. So, for instance, according to the Pentagon, attacks on American and Iraqi troops are down 70% compared to June 2007; IED (roadside bomb) attacks have dropped almost 90% over the same period; in May, for the first time, fewer Americans died in Iraq than in Afghanistan (where the President's other war, some seven-plus years later, is going poorly indeed); and, above all else, "violence" is down. ("All major indicators of violence in Iraq have dropped by between 40 and 80 percent since February 2007, when President Bush committed an additional 30,000 troops to the war there, the Pentagon reported.")
Think of this as the equivalent of Vietnam's infamous "body count," but in reverse. In a country where the U.S. generally occupies only the land its troops are on, the normal measures of military victory long ago went out the window, so bodies have to stand in. In Vietnam, the question was: How many enemy dead could you tote up? The greater the slaughter, the closer you assumedly were to obliterating the other side (or, at least, its will). As it turned out, by what the grunts dubbed "the Mere Gook Rule" -- "If it's dead and it's Vietnamese, it's VC [Vietcong]… " -- any body would do in a pinch when it came to the metrics of victory.
In Iraq today, the counting being most widely publicized runs in the opposite direction. Success now can be measured in less deaths; and, by all usual counts, Iraqi deaths have indeed been falling since the height of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing in the early months of 2007. In part, this has occurred because millions of people have already been driven out of their homes and many neighborhoods, especially in the capital, "cleansed." At the same time, in Sunni areas, significant numbers of insurgents have joined the Awakening Movement. They have been paid off by the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq, while, assumedly, biding their time until the American presence ebbs to take on "the Persians" -- that is, the Shiite (and Kurdish) government embedded in Baghdad's fortified, American-controlled Green Zone.
As a result, cratered Iraq -- a land with at least 50% unemployment, still lacking decent electricity, potable water, hospitals with drugs (or even doctors, so many having fled), or courts with judges (40 of them having been assassinated and many more injured since 2003) or lawyers, many of whom joined the more than two million Iraqis who have gone into exile -- is, today, modestly quieter. But don't be fooled. So many years later, Iraqis are still dying in prodigious numbers, and significant numbers of those dying are doing so at the hands of Americans.
It's not just the family, including possibly four children under the age of 12, who died last week when a U.S. jet blasted their house in Tikrit (after their father, evidently believing thieves were about, fired shots in the air with a U.S. patrol nearby); or the manager and two female employees of a bank at Baghdad International Airport ("three criminals," according to a U.S. military statement) killed when their car was shot up by soldiers from a U.S. convoy; or the unarmed civilian, a relative of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who died in an early morning American raid in the southern town of Janaja; or the men, woman, and child in a car "which failed to stop at a [U.S.] checkpoint on the outskirts of Mosul because, according to a U.S. military statement, the two men were armed and one man inside the car made 'threatening movements'"; or, according to the U.N., the estimated 1,000 dead in Baghdad's vast, heavily populated Shiite slum of Sadr City, mostly civilians, 60% women and children, in fighting in April and May in which U.S. troops and air power played a significant role.
In fact, one great difference between the "liberation" moment of 2003 and the "stabilization" moment of 2008 is simply that what began as "regime change" -- missiles and bombs theoretically meant for that Saddamist deck of 55 leadership cards -- then developed into a war against a Sunni insurgency, and is now functionally a war against Shiites as well. Particularly targeted of late has been the movement headed by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the American occupation, who is especially popular among the impoverished Shiite masses in Baghdad and southern Iraq. In Shiite areas, his party, according to a U.S. intelligence estimate, would probably win upwards of 60% of the votes in the upcoming provincial elections, if they were fairly conducted. In recent months, the U.S. military in "support" of its Iraqi allies in the Maliki government has fought fierce battles in both the southern oil city of Basra and Sadr City against Sadr's militia, with the usual sizeable numbers of civilian casualties.
In other words, despite all the talk about onrushing "stability," looked at another way, the U.S. faces an ever more complicated and spreading, if intermittent, war. With it has gone another, somewhat less publicized kind of body count. Consider, for instance, a small passage from a recent piece by New York Times correspondent Thom Shanker on inter-service rivalries in Iraq. The U.S. Army, he reports, is now ramping up its own air arm (just as it did in the Vietnam era). In the last year, it has launched Task Force ODIN, the name being an acronym for "observe, detect, identify and neutralize," but also the über-god of Norse mythology (and perhaps a reminder of the godlike attitudes those in the air can develop towards those being "neutralized" on the ground).
With its headquarters at a base near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's old hometown, the unit consists of only "about 300 people and 25 aircraft." Shanker calls it "a Rube Goldberg collection of surveillance and communications and attack systems, a mash-up of manned and remotely piloted vehicles, commercial aircraft with high-tech infrared sensors strapped to the fuselage, along with attack helicopters and infantry."
Here's the money paragraph of his piece with its triumphalist body count:
"The work of the new aviation battalion was initially kept secret, but Army officials involved in its planning say it has been exceptionally active, using remotely piloted surveillance aircraft to call in Apache helicopter strikes with missiles and heavy machine gun fire that have killed more than 3,000 adversaries in the last year and led to the capture of almost 150 insurgent leaders."
We have no idea how that figure of more than 3,000 dead Iraqis was gathered (given that we're talking about an air unit), or what percentage of those dead were actually civilians, but certainly some among them died in the recent fighting in heavily populated Sadr City. In any case, consider that number for a moment: One modest-sized Army air unit/one year = 3,000+ dead Iraqis.
Now, consider that the Air Force in Iraq in that same year, according to Shanker, "quadrupled its number of sorties and increased its bombing tenfold." Consider that significant numbers of those sorties have been over heavily populated cities, or that, according to the Washington Post, between late March and late May, more than 200 powerful Hellfire missiles were fired into Baghdad (mainly, undoubtedly, into the Sadr City area); or that the unmanned aerial vehicles, the Predator (armed with two Hellfire missiles) and the larger, far more deadly Reaper (armed with up to 14 of those missiles), carried out, according to Shanker, 64 and 32 attacks, respectively, in Iraq and Afghanistan between the beginning of March and June.
And we're not even considering here U.S. military operations on the ground in Basra earlier in the year (special forces units were sent into the city when the Iraqi military and police seemed to be buckling), or in campaigns in Sunni or mixed areas to the north of Baghdad, or simply in ongoing everyday operations. Although individual body counts are now regularly announced for specific operations (not the case in the early years in Iraq), who knows what the overall carnage amounts to. One thing can be said however: The pacification campaign in Iraq really hasn't flagged since the Sunni insurgency gained strength in late 2003. Reformulated by General David Petraeus in 2007, it's just the sort of effort that occupying Great Powers have long been known to apply to rebellious possessions.
Iraq as a Surge-athon
To fully assess just what lurks beneath the "good news" from Iraq, including those 3,000 "adversaries" that Task Force ODIN "neutralized," we would have to do a different kind of counting of which we're incapable, not because no one's doing it, but because we have minimal access to the numbers. Let me try, however, to outline briefly some of what can be known -- and then you can judge the good news for yourself.
American troop strength in Iraq now stands at about 146,000. That's perhaps 16,000 more than in January 2007 just before the surge began. It's also about 16,000 more than in April 2003 when Baghdad was taken. According to Lolita Baldor of the Associated Press, the latest Pentagon plans are to order about 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq in 2009, which would keep troop levels at or above that 140,000 mark.
In addition, a vast force of private contractors, armed and unarmed, is in the country. There is no way to know how many of these hired hands and hired guns are actually there, but it's a reasonable guess that they add up to more -- possibly substantially more -- than the troops on hand.
Since February 2007 in the U.S., only one "surge" has been discussed, almost nonstop -- those 30,000 ground troops the President ordered largely into the Baghdad area. A surprising number of other surges have, however, been underway, even if barely noted in the U.S. These add up to a remarkable Bush administration urge to surge that puts American policy in Iraq in quite a different light.
Among these surges, for instance, has been a political surge of U.S. "advisors" and "mentors" to the Iraqi government, police, and military. In another of his superb reports for the New York Review of Books, "Embedded in Iraq," Michael Massing says that the main elements of this "little known political surge… were spelled out in a classified 'Joint Campaign Plan' completed in May 2007." It represented, he writes, a "sharp expansion."
"Specialists from Treasury and Justice, Commerce and Agriculture were assigned to government ministries to help draw up budgets and weed out sectarian elements. The Agency for International Development and the Army Corps of Engineers set up projects to boost nutrition and reinforce dams. Provincial Reconstruction Teams were stationed in Baghdad and elsewhere to help repair infrastructure, improve water and electrical systems, and stimulate the economy."
We know as well that American advisers are now deeply involved with local government bodies in contested areas; that American advisers, evidently hired from private contractors, are embedded in the key interior, defense, and oil ministries; that advisers, also hired from private contractors, are helping the Iraqi police and that a new multiyear contract with DynCorp International, which already has 700 civilian police advisers in the country, will raise that number above 800. Their mission: "to advise, train and mentor the Iraqi Police Service, Ministry of Interior, and Department of Border Enforcement."
In this period, even academics have surged into Iraq as the military has embedded anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists from the "Human Terrain System" in military units to advise on local customs and "cultural understanding." One of them, a political scientist completing her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, was recently killed in a bombing in Sadr City.
We know that more than 20,000 Iraqis are now in two U.S. prisons, Camp Bucca in the south of the country and state-of-the-art Camp Cropper on the outskirts of Baghdad. Both of these have been continually upgraded. In this period, though, it seems that a surge in prison building (and assumedly prisoners) has also been underway. The Washington Post's Walter Pincus reports that a new "Theater Internment Facility Reconciliation Center" -- i.e. prison -- is being built near Camp Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad. A "new contract calls for providing food for 'up to 5,000 detainees' [there] and will also cover 150 Iraqi nationals, who apparently will work at the facility." Another "reconciliation center" is to be opened at Ramadi in al-Anbar Province.
All of this is, again, being done through private contractors, including a contract for some company to "guard" the "property" of up to 60,000 Iraqi detainees. ("The contracted personnel will be responsible for the accountability, inventory, and storage of all property.") This, reports Sharon Weinberger of Wired's Danger Room blog, is evidently in anticipation of a "surge of approximately 15,000 detainees in the upcoming six months."
In addition, the Iraqi military, with its embedded American advisors, remains almost totally dependent on the U.S. military. According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, based on "a classified study of Iraqi Army battalions," just 10% of them "are capable of operating independently in counterinsurgency operations and... even then they rely on American support." For logistics, planning, supplies -- almost everything that makes a military function -- the Iraqi military relies on the U.S. military and would be helpless without it.
More than five years after Baghdad fell, there still is no real Iraqi air force. The Iraqi military now depends ever more on the quick and constant application of American air power -- and U.S. air power in the region has surged in the last year and a half. The use of drones like the Predator and Reaper, whose pilots are stationed at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas and other distant spots, has also surged, doubling since the beginning of 2007. Meanwhile, new machines, including a "platoon" of 30 of the Army's experimental Micro Air Vehicles, which can hover "in one place [and]… stare down with 'electro-optical and infrared cameras,'" are being rushed into action in Iraq, which is increasingly a laboratory for the testing of the latest U.S. weaponry.
In addition, for unknown billions of dollars, the upgrading of American bases in that country, especially the mega-bases, continues, while possibly the largest embassy on the planet, a vast citadel inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone meant to house 1,000 "diplomats" (and large numbers of guards and support staff of every sort), is nearly finished.
Finally, among the various surges of these last 18 months, there has been a surge in Bush administration demands for an American future in Iraq. In ongoing negotiations for a Status of Forces Agreement, U.S. negotiators have demanded access to nearly 60 bases, control of Iraqi air space to 29,000 feet, the right to arrest Iraqis without explanation or permission, the right to bring troops into and out of the country without permission or notification, the right to launch military operations on the same basis, and immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for troops and private contractors.
In other words, wherever you might have looked over the last year or more, a surge-athon was under way. It was meant to solidify the American position in Iraq for the long term as an occupying power. Not withdrawing or drawing down, but ramping up has been the order of the day, no matter what was being debated, discussed, or written about in the United States.
That ramping up makes some sense of the "good news" and "stability" of this moment. Among other things, it's hardly surprising that weakly armed guerrilla forces (whether Shiite or Sunni), when faced with such a display of power have no desire to take it on frontally.
Given the situation of Iraq more than five years after the invasion, to speak of this urge to surge and its results as "success" or as "good news" is essentially obscene. Think of Iraq instead as a cocked gun. It's loaded, it's held to your head, and things are improving only to the extent that, recently, it hasn't gone off.
Iraq itself is wreckage beyond anything that could have been imagined back in March 2003; liberation is, by now, a black joke; the Bush administration's "benchmarks" for Iraqi success remain largely unmet, and still we keep "liberating" that land, still we keep killing Iraqis in prodigious numbers. A Vietnam-style body count, once banished by an administration that wanted no reminders of the last disastrous American counterinsurgency war, is now back with a vengeance, even if violence is down. These days, in its statements, the U.S. military is counting scalps almost everywhere there's fighting in Iraq.
A Great Lie of History
"We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people." This was one of the great lies of history. And all the while, the price of oil -- the one product Iraq has and, in present conditions, can't get at adequately -- continues to soar. There is no "good news" in any of this, unless you happen to be an undertaker, nor is there any end to it in sight.
Of the political surge in Iraq -- all those advisers and Provincial Reconstruction Teams pouring into the country -- Michael Massing has written bluntly: "[I]t has been an utter failure. 'Dysfunctional' is how one visiting adviser described it, citing bitter inter-agency battles, micromanagement from Washington, and an acute mismatch between the skills of the advisers and the needs of the Iraqi government."
The same could be said -- and someday undoubtedly will be -- of the rest of the U.S. effort, including the much lauded recent counterinsurgency part of it.
So let me offer this bit of advice. When you read the news, skip the "good" part. The figures demonstrating "improvement" may (or may not) be perfectly real, but they also represent an effort to dominate (as well as divide and conquer) in an essentially colonial fashion; worse yet, it's an effort barely held together by baling wire and reliant on the destruction of ever more Iraqi neighborhoods.
If you want a prediction, here it is and it couldn't be simpler: This cannot end well. Not for Washington. Not for the U.S. military. Not for Americans. And, above all, not for Iraqis.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media hasn't covered, it is an alternative history of the mad Bush years. A brief video in which Engelhardt discusses American mega-bases in Iraq can be viewed by clicking here.
[Note for readers: This piece could profitably be read in conjunction with Juan Cole's recent post, "The Real State of Iraq," for a full and thoroughly devastating picture of what American policy has meant in that country.]
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt

Soldiers' Suicides: How Not to Support Our Troops

This is from this morning's Globe. Mr. Carroll used to attend my old church, the Jesuit Urban Center.

A blind eye on soldiers' suicides
By James Carroll June 30, 2008

'SUPPORT THE troops" is an American lie. This nation is grievously and knowingly failing the young men and women who wear the uniform of its military services, and nothing demonstrates that more powerfully than the suicides of soldiers. According to the Army's own figures, the rate of suicide among active duty personnel nearly doubled between 2001 and 2006. The number then grew even higher in 2007, when suicide ranked third as the cause of death among members of the National Guard. Even if proximate causes vary from war zones to home fronts, such data are anomalous, since suicide rates among soldiers historically go down during wartime, not up.
Veterans, too, are in trouble. In May, the head of the National Institute of Mental Health warned of "a gathering storm." Thomas Insel told the American Psychiatric Association that one in five of the 1.6 million soldiers who have been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan (or more than 300,000) suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome or depression. Potentially life-threatening mental disorders, including self-destructive behavior like addiction, raise the prospect, in Insel's words, of "suicides and psychological mortality trumping combat deaths."
As America has steadily averted its gaze from the actualities of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so, too, has the nation refused to look at what is happening to those it sends to fight. Repeated deployments to war zones, combined with meager support upon returning home, are leaving many soldiers adrift. Each one who commits suicide, or attempts to (more than 2,000 last year), shows this. It would be presumptuous to draw conclusions from any single instance of such despair, but taken as a whole, these acts of self-destruction lay bare some difficult truths.
The war in Iraq, in particular, is an exercise in the obliteration of meaning. The war's essence is its lack of essence. The war's catch-22 is that its stated goal is social order, while the American presence itself creates disorder. Our troops know this. They arrive in the war zone with every intention of protecting an innocent population from the enemy, only to discover that the enemy and the population are indistinguishable. "Insurgents" often turn out to be, not ideologues, much less "terrorists," but only cousins of those already killed. Victims and victimizers are alike. Suspicion is ubiquitous. No one trusts Americans. Such contradictions make the war controversial in the United States, but in Iraq they make the soldiers' situation intolerable.
These particular problems exist within a larger context of collapsing sources of meaning. The myths on which the military ethos depend have been broken.
Whatever ethnic fevers grip Iraqis, for example, American soldiers know, if only unconsciously, that the passion for nationhood on which 19th- and 20th-century wars depended is being undercut by the global citizenship of the 21st century. Not since Earth was seen whole from the moon is nationalism what it was. Even more transforming, faith in technological violence as an instrument of justice is being undercut by the catastrophic planetary outcome that can already be anticipated if technological violence is not curbed. The human naiveté that uses violence in the name of ending violence can no longer be sustained. For Americans plunged into the heart of this contradiction, the unbridled violence of their own nation points to the suicide of the very species.
But for American soldiers, it is more personal even than that. For meaning's sake, their purpose has been defined around loyalty. Unit cohesion is the absolute virtue. Thus our soldiers prepare to die not for Iraq, nor even for America, but for one another. "I've got your back," they promise. In combat, such commitment is often heroically fulfilled, but, alas, once the bureaucracy replaces the buddy, loyalty, too, is found to be a lie. Harsh to say, but the American military cares nothing for the individuals who comprise it, only for the mission those individuals, in formation, can accomplish. Hence the shameful exploitation of troops in disabling redeployments, and the resulting abuse of their families. Hence the nation's abandonment of those, who, upon discharge, find no unit, no cohesion, and their backs against the wall. Support the troops? On your bumper.
Suicide is always a tragedy, and, whether accompanied by a note, always a message - one that survivors must read. In the case of soldier suicides, we Americans are all their next of kin. Their despair demands our attention. What are they telling us?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Loons on the Line

THIS IS FROM DEFENDERS MAGAZINE, the quarterly publication from the wonderful folks at Defenders of Wildlife.

Loons on the Line
New Englanders give the not-so-common loon a helping hand
by Gretel H. Schueller

© Ray Richer
Eric Hanson pulls out his binoculars—a silhouette in the distance looks promising. He paddles his canoe closer. "Oh, yeah! A chick just shot across the lake! It's really thrashing around." Nearby an adult loon with its dramatic black and white plumage flaps its wings in the water. The two loons are doing what Hanson calls "extreme preening." Every few hours, loons need to get oils into their feathers; otherwise, water begins absorbing into the body. "They're really flushing their feathers. Sometimes they'll stick one wing out and go in a circle. Sometimes they'll do somersaults."

For Hanson, who leads the Vermont Loon Recovery Project, these birds symbolize Vermont's loon resurgence. "I thought we'd never see loons here," he says, as he paddles across Hardwick Lake on an August afternoon. Since 2002, however, a pair has made this lake in northeast Vermont its summer home. And since then, Hanson and a dedicated network of volunteers have been watching them—and the rest of Vermont's growing population of loons—very closely.
Loons can stir even the most cynical of souls—think Henry Fonda in the movie "On Golden Pond." It may be their mournful call, which the Chippewa Indians called the "omen of death." It may have something to do with their devotion: A male and female pair can return year after year to the same lake to nest. Or it may be because of their fragility: Loons are one of a select group of birds that have multiple organizations dedicated singularly to their survival, such as the Adirondack Loon Conservation Program, the Michigan Loon Society and New Hampshire's Loon Preservation Committee.

It's a good thing, too. Although loon numbers are increasing in many areas, the future of loons is far from secure. "People tend to think of loons as this wilderness bird," Hanson notes. "And they probably were." But, he adds, today the birds are sharing lakes with tourists, motorboats, jet skis, anglers and increasing shoreline development. Mercury poisoning, run-ins with fishing line, decreasing habitat and global warming are all growing threats that could significantly impact the population, he believes.

More than 600,000 loons make their home in North America. Roughly 90 percent of them breed in Canada; Minnesota claims the largest population in the United States, with somewhere between 10,300 and 12,900. The birds also summer in Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. They winter mainly along the coasts, ranging as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. But the common loon (Gavia immer) wasn't always so loved or so common.

In the 1800s, fishermen considered loons pests. Trout were declining in lakes across the Northeast; killing the fish-eating birds seemed justified. Some states even discussed placing a bounty on loons. But they hardly needed that incentive: By the turn of the century, hunters were shooting thousands of birds each spring when the loons returned to their breeding lakes. The practice stopped in 1918 with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Threats to loons did not end there, however.

More than half of the adult loon deaths in New England with known causes are due to poisoning from lead fishing sinkers, according to researchers at Tufts University. Hundreds of tons of lead fishing tackle are lost in waters annually across the country. Loons ingest small pebbles—as many as 20 to 30—to help break down the fish bones in their gizzards. Unfortunately, the birds often mistake lead fishing tackle for pebbles. The lead breaks down in the loon's stomach, is absorbed into its bloodstream and, within a month, the loon is dead. In response, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont have banned the use and sale of lead sinkers.

New threats, however, are developing: Fishing lines are increasingly ensnaring loons when the birds take live bait or lures. Hanson spent a good chunk of his summer untangling loons from lines—sometimes unsuccessfully. Mercury contamination is another concern. The pollutant drifts east from coal-burning power plants, and is ingested by fish and then by fish-eating birds such as loons. "Mercury is a big problem," states John Cooley, staff biologist with New Hampshire's Loon Preservation Committee. "It magnifies up through the food chain to loons because they live for such a long time—25 to 30 years—and because they are at the top of the aquatic food chain. That affects their breeding, their ability to raise chicks and perhaps even their survival."
The birds are also under assault in their winter habitats—particularly the stretch of mid-Atlantic coast from New Jersey to North Carolina. More than 500 loons die here each season when they get caught in commercial gillnets. Oil spills pose another threat. In 1996, a barge spilled more than 800,000 gallons of home heating oil off the Rhode Island coast, killing an estimated 400 loons. In 2003, 200 loons died during an oil spill in Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts. In the Great Lakes, recent outbreaks of botulism have killed more than 15,000 migrating loons.

Nonetheless, things still look good for Vermont's loons. "We know based on records that loons were breeding throughout the state 150 years ago," Hanson notes. "In 1983, there were only seven mating pairs in the northeast part of the state. It's our responsibility to make amends and fix that." And for that past 10 years that's exactly what Hanson and a dedicated troop of volunteers have been doing. In fact, the loon's recovery has been so successful that in 2005 the state removed the bird from its endangered species list. In 2007, Vermont claimed 62 nesting pairs and an estimated total adult population of 216.

"Ten years ago, observing a loon on any lake in Vermont was a treat," says Hanson. Now it's difficult not to see one in the lake-dotted region of northeast Vermont. From early May to September—with a canoe strapped to the top of his rusty Toyota pickup—he drives across the state monitoring loons, which need cold, fish-rich lakes and plenty of elbowroom. They're big, territorial waterfowl measuring nearly three feet long and weighing six to ten pounds. To become airborne, they need a watery runway to get a running start, sometimes splashing along for a quarter of a mile before gaining enough speed to take flight. "You get under 250 acres, you're only going to have one pair," explains Hanson. "We have one lake that's 340 acres and happens to have three pairs. But it's a very fish-rich lake."

One of the places Hanson has been monitoring is Hardwick Lake. This year, a chick was born here in June. He scans the water. "It should be ready to fly by now." Adults typically arrive at their summer nesting grounds in late April or early May. After a little courtship—a water ballet, songs and bursts of wing flapping—both male and female take turns incubating one or two eggs for about 28 days. Chicks are typically born between mid-June and late July.

Hanson steers the canoe toward the nest, a floating island of grasses and shrubs about the size of a large chair. A bowl-shaped depression sprinkled with eggshell fragments marks the center. You'd never guess this wasn't the work of mother nature. Actually, Hanson made the nesting raft out of logs across which he stretched rubber-coated steel mesh. Then soil and plants got piled on. He's made several dozen over the years. "I get my canoe pretty muddy setting them out," he jokes.

In spite of the mud, wildlife managers use these rafts in loon nesting territory across the country. "They've made a huge difference for the loons' ability to breed," notes Cooley. Loons are extremely skittish when nesting. If they feel at all threatened—say from a boat getting a little too close—into the water they go, usually kicking an egg in also. (The word loon comes from the Scandinavian lom, which means clumsy—and on land they are.) For this reason, loons seek out spaces at the water's edge in marshy areas, sheltered from predators such as snapping turtles, raccoons and eagles. But these spots leave the nests vulnerable to flooding. "If we get two inches of rain, the level on a lake can go up six," Hanson explains. Nest failures from rising water aren't unique to Vermont. One year, Maine lost almost half its nests to flooding. "If with global climate change we start to see more storm activity, it could harm productivity," he worries.

After securing the nest so it will weather the winter, Hanson takes another look at the preening birds. He's glad he saw "his" loons. "We're still fortunate," he explains. "We're following every breeding pair that we know of in the state." Monitoring more than 150 lakes closely wouldn't be possible without a statewide team of enthusiastic volunteers. The biggest volunteer effort is Loonwatch, an annual count that takes place across the country on the third Saturday of July. In Maine, with a loon population of more than 4,000, nearly 1,000 people participate. In Vermont last summer, more than 200 people took part.

"You don't need to be a wildlife expert or even an avid birder" to participate, says Hanson. "I think that's one reason why they're so popular." Indeed, many volunteers go on to become stewards for both loons and lakes. "I start training them to put rafts out and signs, just really empower them to take over management of their lake. Because of that, they become the educators of the lake as well. So now, they're talking to their neighbors and their neighbors become better informed."

For example, there's Loretta Whitehead. At the edge of her lakeside property in Concord, she's planted grasses and reeds to protect the nesting raft she monitors. She gingerly hands Hanson two mud-colored eggs she's been keeping in her freezer; the sulfur smell is overpowering. The eggs never hatched, so they'll be analyzed and tested for mercury. He adds them to the cooler of his truck.

Then there's Ray and Evelyn Richer. "They have educated this huge, extremely busy, developed lake. I never even have to come here," says Hanson. When they moved to Joe's Pond in Cabot 10 years ago, "there was a pair doing courtship displays," recalls Ray Richer. "We were on the deck watching, thinking 'great.' So I called fish and wildlife asking what I should do. They pretty much laughed at me and said we would never have nesting loons on Joe's Pond because it's just too busy."

The Richers proved him wrong. Ray proceeded to build the Ritz-Carlton of nesting platforms, thick with cattails and shrubs and placed well out of the boat wake. Then he put a huge sign in front asking boaters to go slow and stay in the main channel. By June the loons were sitting on an egg. Instead of spending July 4th admiring the fireworks, the Richers nervously watched the nest to make sure the parents weren't scared off their eggs. Last year, they tried to save an injured chick, the casualty of sibling rivalry, by feeding it minnows every hour. "We were only able to keep it alive for three days," Ray Richer says. Another loon rescue attempt turned out better: A mother caught in fishing line, wrapped around her neck. "We tried to get her, but she kept getting away. After three weeks, she finally beached herself. We snipped her free."
Maybe because they are such a visible and vocal animal, loons give us a connection to wild places, even if those spots aren't so wild any more. Loons are also at the top of the ecosystem, like lions and eagles and wolves. Whatever happens to the rest of the food web will affect loons. "By helping the loons, people are also focusing on their lake and everything about their lake—and the things surrounding their lake," Hanson says. "So they're going to take care of a heck of a lot more than just a pair of loons in the long term."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Voice of a People

SOME YEARS AGO, in my youth, through someone's political patronage (I can't remember whose) I got a summer job working for the MDC. I was told to be at a certain place at a certain time, and a truck would pick me up. It did, and the man riding shotgun scooted over so I could fit in. They were regular-type Southie guys: part wag, part wit, and very proud to be among the working class-- something one doesn't see much anymore, and more's the pity. Anyway we were all soon thick as thieves, and I was 'Hayesie' (not Hazy) quick enough. Later that morning they dropped me off to what would be my first assignment.

"See that tree, Hayesie?" the crew leader asked, as we pulled up to some kind of park running along a highway.

"Yeah?" I answered. But good grief, I thought, I hope they're not going to hand me a chain-saw and tell me to cut it down-- even then I didn't subscribe to that kind of thing.

"Go sit under it and we'll be back in an hour or two," the chief said. Much to my relief.
While some may take the above as an illustration of nepotism, or the inefficiency of public servants, I on the contrary think the chief was very wise: really, what else should one do with a tree, other than sit under it? Unless one should climb it, of course. Anyway, I've been sitting under trees ever since, or looking up at the sky, and that I did today to my surfeit, over at Castle Island. The sky was a swirling magnificence, morning glory blue with brilliant white puff-balls-- but then everything changed-- darker, raggedy clouds streamed in from the south, thunder rumbled in the distance, and I was there to catch nature in the switching act.

I would love to see Obama, when he becomes our next President (please God, as my grandmother would say) appoint a Native American to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Heck, he should appoint Native Americans to every cabinet post. After all, they had this continent for 10,000 years, and when white people first came here, the land, air, sky, and water were as pristine as when they were given these things ten millennia earlier.

And speaking of Native Americans-- here's a great story via the Huffington Post, originally from the New York Times:
Young American Indians Find Their Voice in Poetry

SANTA FE, N.M. — The memories of long summers spent on Navajo land as a little boy have stayed with Nolan Eskeets, like the words his grandfather spoke from his deathbed.
“Up, little one,” his grandfather said to him in Navajo, a language Nolan did not understand.
Now a barrel-chested 18-year-old, with a rush of long brown hair, Nolan summons these memories — the days herding sheep through the valleys, the redolence of fresh fry bread, the unfamiliar language of his grandfather — whenever he picks up a pen.
Nolan will use that pen and his baritone when he competes this summer in the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival in Washington, D.C. He and a group of fellow students at the Santa Fe Indian School are part of a growing program that has won a slew of local and regional poetry slams and twice earned an invitation to the festival, which pits teams of the country’s top young spoken word poets against one another.
While Nolan and his teammates do not hail from the gritty urban surroundings that are often a breeding ground for slam poetry, where poets are judged on both performance and writing, their team is drawing national attention for its decidedly American Indian take on an art form that has grown increasingly popular with young people over the last decade.
The success of the Indian School’s poetry program has particular importance in New Mexico, where 10 percent of the population is American Indian and where Indian students from grades 3 to 11 lag behind all other groups in reading proficiency, according to a 2007 state report.
Teachers and administrators at the Indian School say the program counters any perception that Indian students cannot excel in English and writing.
“Tears dance down my cheeks in the rhythm of Santo Domingo’s corn dance/Tattered textbooks and Presbyterian Bibles bark violent incantations and shriek curses of assimilation,” thundered April Chavez, a senior reciting her poem “Indian Education” at a recent rehearsal.
April, whose family comes from the Santo Domingo pueblo and the Navajo nation, plans to attend Stanford in the fall. Like other students on the Santa Fe team, she often wraps her poems in the pulsing staccato of Indian words.
“For the kids, spoken word is a reconnection with the oral tradition, a return to the origin of language, its sound, its music,” said Tim McLaughlin, a creative writing teacher at the school and the team’s coach.
Mr. McLaughlin began the program at the Indian School, a sprawling Indian-run boarding institution with some 700 students in grades 7 through 12, many from New Mexico’s 19 pueblos and the Navajo nation.
He remembers well the challenge of getting his students, many more reserved than the typical teenager and “brought up to be listeners first,” to write about their lives at home.
Topics that might make for powerful poetry — ceremonies, families, the complexities of their identity — seemed off limits.
“The kids wanted to build awareness about issues that are confronting native people, but they had to balance that by not violating things that are considered sacred and are to be left sacred,” Mr. McLaughlin said
Mr. McLaughlin, who is white and from Virginia, said he occasionally found himself on the phone with a student’s parent or grandparent, to make sure it was acceptable for a particular subject to be addressed in a poem.
Gradually, as the students grew emboldened by their work, themes began to emerge — the loss of language, the legacy of the reservation and pueblo and, especially, their relationship with their grandparents.
Soon, students were bellowing poems about what it was like to grow up Indian. “Nali,” a poem by Santana Shorty, a bubbly freshman mostly raised by her white mother and with little connection to reservation life before Indian School, recalls Santana’s worn memory of her grandmother, who spoke no English, speaking to her in Navajo, which Santana did not understand.
“Her words nourish and sting me simultaneously,” Santana recited. “I struggle and cry to her with my eyes/A crease of ‘I’m sorry’ spreads across her forehead.”
The poems impressed James Kass, the founder and executive director of Youth Speaks, which produces the festival. Mr. Kass invited the team to participate in 2007 after hearing about them from Mr. McLaughlin, and he recalled seeing the students mesmerize a packed crowd at a San Francisco slam last year.
“They did a good portion of their poems in their native languages, which was amazing,” he said. “They weren’t trying to mimic poets from New York or Chicago.”
After failing to advance past the quarterfinal round last year, the Santa Fe team is poised for a stronger showing next month. They will be the only exclusively American Indian team among the 44 competing. An HBO camera crew has been following the students as they prepare and will be there to record the final competition as part of a documentary.
For the students, though, there is something more meaningful at stake: the expression of who they are to all who will listen.
At a recent performance in Santa Fe, Nolan Eskeets performed a poem, “Letter to Grandpa.” In it, he speaks of never learning Navajo, despite a promise to his grandfather, and of his painful struggle to pronounce his own Indian name.
In the end, Nolan writes that the poem itself has finally allowed him to use his language in a way that would have made his grandfather proud.
“Grandpa,” Nolan concludes, “Let me sing for you.”
After the performance, Nolan’s usually stoic father grew emotional. He strode up to Nolan and clasped his hand.
“Thank you,” he told his son in Navajo.

listen to poems here:

Monday, June 16, 2008

Downy Dad Feeding Son

JUST IN TIME FOR FATHER'S DAY-- well, actually a day late, I stepped out to my kitchen this evening to begin making supper, and saw a very moving sight-- a Downy Woodpecker male was feeding his fledgling son, a little round puffball. (You can tell the males from the females easily-- the males have a red swatch at the back of their head-- the females lack this.) The father was attached to my suet feeder, which hangs down from the bird feeder, while the fledgling was hanging on to the window screen about ten inches away. After a bit the fledgling plopped down to the porch roof (about two feet down). His dad continued feeding him, breaking off little chucks of suet and carrying them down. The fledgling had probably been flying for only a few days-- he still looked a little shaky on his feet. Then they both flew into the mulberry tree, about twenty feet away.
The mulberry tree is LOADED with fruit this year, and the fruits are about a week away from ripening. Once this happens, that tree becomes a veritable Mecca for all the neighborhood birds. Since it hangs over my back door and back steps, I can sneak out there quietly and eat my breakfast out there, and watch the show. This evening two squirrels were already having at it, scoffing the unripened fruit-- typical! In many bird species, both genders help with the raising of the young, including, obviously, the Downy Woodpecker. I feel so privileged to be able to watch the wildlife here in their unguarded moments. I've been feeding the male and female downy all winter-- nice to know that they have successfully raised a brood in one of the nearby trees.

The second picture shows a downy woodpecker nest-- they excavate this from a standing dead tree (a snag)-- a very time-consuming thing, as the bill of the downy is quite small, compared to other woodpeckers. (The downy is the smallest of North America's woodpeckers.) The female and male take turns excativing, carrying out little bits of chiselled wood in their bills and spitting it out.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

GLBT Youth and Proms

This was posted this morning on AlterNet.

GLBT Youth Fight for the Right to Party at Prom
By Sue Katz, AlterNetPosted on June 11, 2008,
When I was in high school in the mid-'60s, it never occurred to lesbians and gays to go to their proms with a same-sex partner. Usually they went with their "beards" -- that is, their guy/girl-pals, their heterosexual accessories. The necessity to lug around a closet under one's taffeta prom gown was challenged in 1980 by a Rhode Island high school senior named Aaron Fricke who was determined, despite administrative refusal, to swirl around under the glitter ball in the arms of his date, Paul Guilbert.
Usually kids have to get permission from their parents to go to a late-night event, but in Aaron's case, he had to get a court order. According to the ACLU, the federal court not only agreed with Aaron's case, but warned the school that it needed to provide sufficient security for the lads.
The law remains, although so does the struggle. In March this year the Scottsboro, Ala., school board tried to keep two young lesbians from attending the junior-senior prom, but luckily Jackson County Circuit Judge John Graham nullified the ban just hours before the event. The parents and lawyers talked to the press and ran interference while a 17-year-old donned a fetching gown and was escorted by a 16-year-old in her handsome tuxedo. As one of the lawyers said, with more sense than hope, "This is just a dance. Adults need not get involved."
I had a long talk with a 17-year-old Seattle lad named Kyle Rapinan. As a kid who was homeless for a few years (he's with a foster family now), who is out in school and who is a leader in his school's Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), he has been the target of a lot of scary bullying, he told me. This has involved everything from obscenities on the school's bathroom walls to mean and threatening postings on social networking sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.
The cyber brutality has been particularly difficult, as Kyle sees academic achievement as his one route out of a difficult life. He's worried about the impact of all this online junk on his professional life in the future. "Getting bullied," he said, "was really depressing. If it wasn't for the GSA at my school, I'd go crazy."
He took his boyfriend to his prom a couple of weeks ago, despite the harassment. In fact, as soon as they descended from the limo at the venue, someone yelled "Faggot!" I asked him why he decided to make himself so vulnerable:
I had to show that even though they hated me and told me I didn't belong there, I am still a student in my school. I'm a senior, and this is my prom, too. I didn't have a lot of fun, but I felt I would regret missing this rite of passage if I didn't go.
But this week he made up for his discomfort at the school event by attending the Pink Prom he helped to organize with support from the adult community. He told me:
We got a grant for $700 from King County Community Organizing for our inclusive event because it was anti-violence and anti-drug. About 160 kids attended for free and we had 21 chaperones, including people from PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), Safe Schools Coalition, teachers from school and other supportive adults.
From the West to the East, kids are standing up for inclusiveness. Recently, some Massachusetts gender-bending made the prom news. Last month a senior at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School, Deborah Lawson, invited her close friend -- a gay guy who enjoys dressing in drag -- to her prom as a substitute for her out-of-town boyfriend. The school principal said no, but when Deborah asked Fox News, of all people, to get involved, they called the superintendent. Since the handbook says that "everyone must wear appropriate dress," and a dress is considered appropriate for a prom, the superintendent gave them the go-ahead. Deborah concluded: "I think what I've learned is that if you scream loudly enough, you'll get what you want."
They're heroic in the Midwest too. In May, Matthew Pope realized his lifelong dream of being elected homecoming king. Openly gay since his freshman year, he had been aware of his sexuality since eighth grade. Matthew clearly refuses to let the very conservative atmosphere at Shawnee Mission East High School in Kansas shrivel his exuberance. He's the only guy on the cheerleading squad, where he has been picked to be one of three co-captains. His victory against 11 other homecoming king candidates the night of the prom was important to this sexual outsider. "It was the ultimate feeling of being accepted," he said. "I'll be going on now for the rest of my life having that experience. Everyone accepted me, so it's really cool."
Fresno, Calif., has its own prom history. Last month the city's unified school district changed its policies when Cinthia (formerly Cynthia) Covarrubias wanted to run for prom king in a tux. He didn't win, but building on the regulation adjustments, Crystal (Johnny) Vera, a former homecoming prince and yet another popular cheerleader, became the first openly transgendered student to win the title of Roosevelt High Prom Queen.
So while some things, like homophobic harassment, have not changed over the decades, at least today, young gays have a bevy of organizations out there offering help and support in navigating both school and alternative proms. For example, articles are posted on sites ranging from Lambda Legal to to GLSEN (Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network).
BAGLY is a Boston-based organization working to support GLBT youth. It is renowned for the gay proms it has been holding for 28 years. This year on May 10, the evening of the Youth Pride march, the group hosted 1,500 young people at Boston City Hall.
Grace Sterling Stowell, the executive director of BAGLY, feels its prom especially serves transgender kids. "It's not very common," she told me, "for trans kids to go to their own prom in the gender identity and dress they choose."
One of the other prominent national organizations supporting GLBT youth is the Safe Schools Coalition (SCC). Co-chair Beth Reis tells me that SSC has provided intervention specialists to work with individual gay kids who become targets of attacks. She recalls the shock jock who called for his listeners to picket the graduation ceremony of Krystal Bennett, a lesbian who was elected homecoming king.
Krystal, however, countered with her far more sophisticated understanding of the intersections of gender and sexuality. Although she is an out lesbian, that's not why she ran to be prom king, she said in an interview. She did it "because prom king is the title I'm most comfortable under. Tiaras and roses don't suit me. I have a problem with people being forced into gender categories, and to assume that every girl wants to wear a dress and have roses makes me mad."
The proms organized especially for gay kids are an essential alternative, Reis believes. "We have an obligation as an adult community to bridge the gap until such time as every high school prom feels totally safe and every same-sex date situation there seems totally unremarkable."
However, she admires the kids who stand up to the opposition and attend traditional proms with same-sex partners. "It's incredible that some young people have what it takes to endure sometimes brutal harassment from peers and from the community."
What we don't hear about, she says, are the "cases where it is absolutely no big deal, where it's taken for granted that every child has the same access to the prom." So now the question remains: How many GLBT kids have been able to grab their honey, wear their sparkles or cuff-links and reclaim the Village People and Donna Summers with gay abandon?
Sue Katz has published journalism on the three continents where she has lived; her topics range from Middle East peace movements to the impact of aging on sexuality. Visit her blog at
© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.View this story online at:

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Of Fireflies and Walkmans

Ah well-- it must be summer, as tonight I saw the first fireflies of the season, flitting around my back yard. And still and always, how can they be perceived as anything other than magic? There is, of course, an explanation for almost everything-- and yet don't we all sense a mystery, hidden within almost all things, that we can never truly know, only-- sniff, as it were? Fireflies to me seem to embody that. I wouldn't have seen them tonight if my brother Bob and his wife Missy hadn't very kindly sent me a lovely pair of Walkmans for my birthday-- my previous pair broke a year ago and, besides, the volume on that pair never went up very high, which is unfortunate as I'm rather hard of hearing. But these new boys go a-way up, which we love. I've been using them ever since. I do of course prefer to think sometimes while I walk, or to hear the sounds of nature, when I'm in or near the woods. But walking along the Fellsway, as we do more often than not, the roar and rush of traffic can be very annoying-- this is where the walkmans come in so handy. Sometimes I like to play music, or listen to NPR or something, but more often that not I prefer to listen to books on tape. You can get a real education that way, believe me. You can walk yourself to wisdom and erudition, as it were-- although I think you could also walk your way to wisdom without walkmans, as well. At any rate, as soon as I opened the box the walkmans came in, I hot-footed it over to the Robbins Library, in Arlington, and got a book on tape. Not Proust; not Joyce or Hesse or Hawthorne-- though there are times for them. No, my first choice was the unabridged version of The Hobbit, narrated by a wonderful English actor by name of Rob Inglis. He does all the voices in character, and it's just delightful to listen to-- not the roar of an 18 wheeler thumping by me, or unmuffled motorcycles, or bass-throb SUVs-- but instead, Bilbo's giddiness as the eagles swoop down and rescue him, the dwarves, and Gandalf from the fiery deviltry of the goblins and wargs-- and sweep them far far up and away, to their mountain eyries.

Anyway-- I have the ugliest back steps in the world. They're made out of pressure-treated lumber, have never been painted, and are cracked and, in some places, missing-- and the bottom seven steps have no railing. They're slippier than ice whenever it rains. And yet right now they are lovely-- for an ancient mulberry tree hangs over them, dripping with bird song by day; and each step boasts its own pot, filled with fragrant deep-purple petunias, or red begonias, or white flowering tobacco, or multi-colored pansies, or a beautiful blue salvia growing in an old wooden wine crate. And the fragrance of all on such a warm summer evening as tonight is delightful. So after our walk this evening, I thought I would take the air of my back steps, sniffing in the fragrance and listening to The Hobbit (they've just encountered Beorn now, the Man-Bear-- and I use that term not in the gay sense.) I shut out all the lights and brought out a little patchouli candle, bringing coals to my Newcastle. And there they were! The fireflies! Again and always, it seems so incongruous to me-- a four lane state highway in front, and four acres of deep dark woods in back, illuminated by only moonlight, starlight, and fireflies. Tonight there seemed three different varieties afoot-- brightish blue ones, clear ones, and orangey ones-- fluroescent, halogen, and incandescent, as it were.

And here's a bit of non-trivia for you-- non in the sense that what I'm about to describe seems far more noble and vital an undertaking than, say, bringing democracy to other countries, on the point of a bayonent: the city of Kitakyushu, Japan, is aiming to become "the best firefly city in the world." The pic above shows fireflies cavorting in that city. Here's what that city's website has to say about the matter:

"Since the domestically unprecedented establishment of the "Firefly Subsection" at the City Hall in 1992, the city of Kitakyushu has promoted the development of "a home for fireflies," a place environmentally friendly to fireflies as well as people, and made efforts in education and support for firefly protection and firefly raising activities on a grassroots level in local communities.
The city of Kitakyushu once experienced serious environmental pollution to the degree that the bay was even called the "sea of death." However, through cooperation between public officials, enterprises and citizens, the pollution has been reversed and now a beautiful natural environment where fireflies can live has been reestablished.

"The city of Kitakyushu is carrying out a number of projects to share information about this achievement. Furthermore, the city is aiming to become a world leader in promoting environmental programs through establishing a comfortable living environment for people and fireflies, and further implementing activities to protect the environment."

Don't you love that? Especially "the establishment of the firefly subsection at the city hall?" One could interpret that in a variety of ways. Was city hall the scene of the establishment of a section of the city, henceforth known as the 'Firefly Subsection"-- kind of like Codman Square, or the Leather District, in Boston? Or the Left Bank in Paris? Or was a bureaucracy created within the bowels of city hall, complete with black-suited, white-shirted, black-tied people in thick glasses picking up phones and answering, "Firefly Subsection, Mr. Nagamuto, may I help you?" Either way it's wonderful, and just what Skovo wants us to do, rather than 'liberate' other countries-- especially the over 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians who have been permanently 'liberated' from this mortal coil.

I would love to deplane at Kitakyushu in a trenchcoat and fedora some stormy night, flag down a cab, and blurt, "Quick-- the firefly subsection of the city-- and twenty more yen if you make it there in under five minutes." The beginning of a rousing tale.

Bravo, Kitakyushu! As the Irish say, God bless the work!