Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Omega Project: An Update

I realize that many of you have been losing sleep, worrying about the status of the "Omega Project."  I figured it might be time for a visual update, since I feel a great deal of responsibility for the mental health and well-being of the approximately twelve of you who actually read this blog (by the way "Hi mom, love you, talk to you soon.")

We are about six weeks in now, and it appears that we are having moderate success.

Here's the genesis:

And here is where we are today:

The only failure thus far was my two short rows of corn, of which only two stalks have emerged.  Evidence suggests that the plants sprouted and were promptly plucked-up and devoured.  I suspicioned (good southern word, that--not used enough) squirrels, but my mother-in-law is adamant that crows are the culprits.

At this point in the Project, I have learned three things:
1. My beds are not deep enough.  If you follow the guides and use six inches of soil, plan to water every day--twice a day in Alabama sun.
2. Plant early.  If I was depending on this thing to eat, I'd be foraging and killing squirrels to survive.
3. I can grow some decent-looking herbs.

 But then again, I've been told that any dang fool can grow herbs.

Stay tuned...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Soil Doctor

Milton Tuck describes himself as a "soil doctor," at least to some first-grade children at the Alabama Nature Center who gathered to learn something about the outdoors.

Milton is a graying, powerfully-built Black man who has spent years sampling and classifying soil in Alabama.  As I listen to him speak, I am astonished at his command of the science, acquired from a lifetime spent outdoors.  But I'm even more amazed at his ability to explain his immense knowledge to a six-year old child's level of understanding.  It is a rare skill.  Those who work in natural resource disciplines spend a lot of time alone, and that doesn't usually translate to social skills like public speaking or teaching.

As I listen, I can't help thinking that if history had unfolded differently this man might be a king somewhere in Africa, with a couple of dozen brides and a whole passel of children and grandchildren.  That might have been good for Milton, but it would have been very unfortunate for Alabama, because we desperately need more men like him.

Milton preaches the gospel of soil.  His message is simple:  everything of real value comes from the ground.  Life is inseparable from soil.

He digs up a clod from the field where the children are gathered.  He holds it up for inspection, grass still attached.  "This is soil," he booms. "S-O-I-L.  Spell it for me."

The children yell it back.  They are as much in the palm of his hand as the soil sample.

He puts the clod down and picks up some loose material from the freshly-dug hole.

"This is dirt.  "D-I-R-T.  Spell it."

"D-I-R-T" the kids yell back.

"Now, let me tell you the difference between the two," he laughs.  "Dirt is just soil that's out of it's place.  Like in my hand, or under my fingernails, or on your britches your momma done told you not to get dirty out here today."

The kids all giggle.  I laugh too.  Milton and I obviously had the same professor at Auburn University.  Old Prof. Hood would send you packing with an "F" if you let the "d" word slip out in his agronomy classes.

Milton has the children spellbound for the next 30 minutes or so.  It is fun to watch, but also a little disheartening.

Milton:  "Where do turkeys come from?"

Child:  "Walmart."

Milton:  "Yes, darlin', but somebody had to get that turkey to Walmart.  Turkeys come from farms.  Farmers raise them up so your momma can buy 'em and cook 'em up for you to eat.  Now, what do turkeys eat?"

Another child:  "Ham."

"HAM?  Haha, no, child, turkeys don't eat meat.  They eat grass and grain and insects.  These things are there for the turkey to eat because of the soil."

This is sad to me because we are not in Detroit, New York, L.A. or even Atlanta.  We are in central Alabama.  Hardly a metropolis.  Have we become that removed from the land in a couple of generations?

Milton continues, "You know what I'd be if we didn't have good soil?  I'd be standing here talking to you buck-naked.  These clothes I got on--they made from cotton--and cotton is a plant that grows in the soil.  And I'd be skinny and hungry, too--'cause everything I eat starts out from the soil in some way.  Plants and animals, children--all depending on the soil.  Think about it.  BUCK-NAKED AND HONGRY!  I sure am glad we got all this good soil!"

The children all laugh.  The Soil Doctor has made them think a little differently about their world.

He has made me think a little differently about it too.  I'd bet he and I agree:  there's a whole lot of teaching to do, and quickly.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Storm Clouds

Rural versus Urban.

This is the real battle that will soon be escalating in the United States.  Skirmishes have already begun, fought in state houses and court houses across our nation for the last 30 years or so.  But it's going to get worse--much worse.  It is the great divide that separates us and may eventually lead to the end of America if not recognized and addressed soon.

My own state provides a current example.  Rural Alabamians were sold-out last week in Montgomery.  Most don't even know, because it received almost no media attention.

At issue was a bill to fund the repair or replacement of 1200-1500 bridges on rural county roads across the state (just the fact that no bureaucrat in county or state government can provide an accurate, consistent number is an absurdity in itself).  Most of these bridges have been untouched since their original construction in the 1950's and 60's.  Many are no longer structurally sound enough to cross by school bus, let alone trucks hauling commerce to the towns.

Alabama's rural roads and bridges are crumbling.  This is no secret to country folk--and it's a problem that isn't going to magically disappear.

After years of ignoring the situation, a bill introduced in the Alabama Senate would have addressed the problem.  It called for a $650 million dollar bond issue that would have replaced a substantial number of the deficient bridges over a 10-year period.  The bond would have required no new taxes--only a redirection of a portion of the diesel fuel tax that the state already collects on every gallon sold.  It is a tax that rural businesses pay every day.  Diesel fuel is the blood of farmers, loggers, and truckers.  It is a "road use" tax--but one that is not being used to maintain the very roads these users travel.

This might seem insignificant, but realize that almost every product that winds up on your table or in your household is moved by diesel engines across rural roads.

The "Rural Bridge Bill" passed the Alabama Senate unanimously, to wide acclaim and much local fanfare.

But the bill never reached the House floor for a vote.  In fact, it never even got out of the House Transportation Committee.

It seems that Alabama's illustrious Governor Dr. Robert Bentley (yes, the man legally changed his name to Dr. Robert Bentley) introduced a competing plan, prompted no doubt by the sage advice of Alabama Department of Transportation Director, John Cooper.  Mr. Cooper was the agency head who stood to lose some of the "redirected" diesel tax.  Bentley's initiative required no vote of any kind.  Political pressure from Bentley and Cooper (with cooperation from the Speaker of the House and the chief lobbyist for the counties themselves) effectively stopped the rural bill dead in it's tracks.

The governor's plan uses a different type of bond for financing.  It's flaw is that it will likely do little to address the problems in rural areas.  The lion's share of projects will wind up in the more prosperous urban counties.  It's no coincidence, since that's where so many potential voters live, and we all know that most politicians are always campaigning or preparing to campaign.

Urban counties like Jefferson, Madison, and Mobile will get their roads repaved, along with some nifty bicycle paths and round-a-bouts, while rural families in Bullock County will have to park at one end of a bridge and walk their kids across to put them on a school bus each day.  Farmers and loggers will drive hundreds of extra miles in detours.

Meanwhile, all you good people who live in the cities, who run to the store when you need a loaf of bread or a carton of eggs, who take all these things for granted and never give a thought to the how part of your life of convenience--you better wake up.  All your philosophical debates on multiculturalism, gay marriage, and corporate tax rates aren't going to matter when your cupboard's bare.  All your ivory tower debates on the Occupy versus Tea Party movements aren't going to be worth a bucket of warm spit when the shelves are empty.

Resentment and discontent are growing out in the country.  This discontent has a face, and it isn't Republican or Democrat, White or Black, Gay or Straight.  It is fed-up with politics and politicians.

And if you want to stay "fed-up," you better start paying attention.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Jar Full of Lightning Bugs

I have officially declared this the first day of Summer in central Alabama.  I just looked out the back window and saw them moving around, low to the ground, hovering above the tall grass in the gathering dusk like fairies in a bedtime story.

Lightning bugs.  At least that's what we called them where I come from.  Maybe you called them fireflies.

For some reason I've been waiting on them this year.  Impatient and wondering when they would appear.  Longing for them.  Maybe it's just a part of getting old, a nostalgia for days of less trouble, when I can't remember having worries or cares of any kind.  Hard play and sweet sleep.  Skinned knees and endless Summer vacation.  The next school year as distant as heat lightning way off to the South, and about as important in the grand scheme of things.  The natural rhythm of a boy's life.

I spent a lot of happy hours in Summers of long ago, running through mill village yards around my Granny's house with barefoot cousins, chasing lightning bugs.  The best hunts always as a team, a pack, with one person holding the empty pickle jar.  Maybe sometimes it was a Mason jar from last year's canning, holes poked in the brass-colored lid with Granny's ice pick.  Laughing and sprinting, sometimes as contestants to see who could catch the most, but most times just filling up the jar with flickering light.  Trying not to squash 'em, because they made that musky smell on my fingers when I did.

There's a line in a song I like that says "You glorify the past when the future dries up."

Maybe there's some truth to that.

But if it's all the same to you, tonight I'm going to find me a jar and hunt some lightning bugs.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


I am one week along on the Omega Project.  I am happy to report that things are coming along quite nicely.  The herbs are herby, the tomato plants are growing, and even the squash plants have poked up towards the Alabama sky.  The corn is taking its sweet time, but I guess that's normal since it's sweet corn.

Several of my friends congratulated me on my decision to garden this year.  To a person, they all mentioned that it would be good "therapy" for me.

I've had a suspicion for a long time that I might need therapy.  I just didn't think so many other people knew.

I've been undergoing treatment all weekend.  You see, the thing about a project outside is that it leads to another, which leads to another, and so on and so on.  First thing you know, the weekend is gone, you are dog-tired, and you're looking at a busy week of trying to make a dollar.

But I have to admit, it is a good tired.  It'll be easy to sleep tonight.

I guess that's what they meant by therapy.