Lessons Learned, or Not

During my first season of volunteering at City Green, I learned that having too much wood-chip mulch in the soil can retard the grown of plants. The organization had received a load of what was supposed to be horse manure and wood chips that turned out to be mostly wood chips. It was spread on part of one field and tilled into the soil as fertilizer. Soon afterward seedlings were planted in that part of the field; after a few weeks many were stunted and discolored.

The decomposition of wood chips removes nitrogen from the soil. Remove too much nitrogen, and the plants in that soil won’t grow properly or at all. I noted this in a guest blog post for City Green near the end of that season.

Spinach seedlings.
Spinach seedlings that should have been mature plants by the time this photo was taken. Note the wood chips visible in the cells with the seedlings.

This season, for our garden, I decided to start seeds for spinach, lettuce, and cilantro in some used potting soil from last season. I knew there were some wood chips mixed in with the soil; we had mulched our flower containers with cedar chips last season. But I worked to eliminate the larger chips and went ahead with my plan. Bad move. As can be seen in the photo, seeds planted in this soil mixture in late March had barely germinated and were nowhere near where I expected them to be by early May. In contrast, some seeds sown directly into the garden in subsequent weeks have grown into plants that will be ready to harvest soon.

We enjoy eating produce from our garden. Thankfully we don’t depend on it for survival. If we did we might be in serious trouble.

Some mistakes and errors, such as this one, are the result of foolishness. The Apostle Paul tells us in the seventh chapter of Romans that some of the poor choices we make come about because of the persistence of evil in human nature: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (verse 19)

I just finished reading The Shadow of the Sun, written by Ryszard Kapuściński and translated by Klara Glowczewska. It is a memoir that includes stories of the author’s travels in Africa from the 1950s to the 1990s, along with brief histories of some of Africa’s most tragic episodes from that period. I will post a more detailed review here and on Goodreads but here is a striking passage from the chapter on Liberia about the fall of Samuel Doe.

History is so often the product of thoughtlessness; it is the offspring of human stupidity, the fruit of benightedness, idiocy, and folly. In such instances, it is enacted by people who do not know what they are doing—more, who do not want to know, who reject the possibility with disgust and anger. We see them hastening toward their own destruction, forging their own fetters, tying the noose, diligently and repeatedly checking whether the fetters and the noose are strong, whether they will hold and be effective. (p. 252)

Sowing vegetables in wood chips doesn’t fall to this level of benightedness, but history and personal experience teach all of us to think carefully about what we do and to seek wise counsel before we do something big and important. City Green’s field recovered and has yielded produce in abundance in the years since the wood chip debacle. Thankfully the more recent history of Liberia in particular also teaches us that, by God’s grace, healing and restoration are sometimes possible even when terrible mistakes are made.

Thank you as always for stopping by. Keep the conversation going.


Eating the Seder, Singing Gospel

Two opinion pieces appeared this Lenten season in the on-line version of Christianity Today. The first, written by two Rabbis, argues that Christians should not eat a Seder meal as a commemoration of the Last Supper. The second, written by two Evangelical Christians, gives counterarguments to the first.

Both sets of arguments have merit. I’m not qualified to contradict either, but I am more inclined to agree with the two Rabbis.

I’m a Gentile. Specifically a Christian, born and raised in the Roman Catholic church, who later embraced Protestant traditions. My mother’s parents were born in Hungary. My father’s family came from Ireland. Maybe if I took a test to have my DNA analyzed for ancestral traits I might learn that I have Tatars, Kalanguya, or Ethiopian Jews among my forebears, but for now I self-identify as a White Gentile of European descent.

That argues against the adopting of Jewish traditions such as the Seder meal as a part of my Christian practice. The Seder, a remembrance of the deliverance of the Jews from slavery, draws on a heritage that I can’t claim. It’s possible instead that someone in my family’s past was active in persecuting Jews. The links to that past are weak or nonexistent, so I’ll likely never know.

Sheet music for the Gospel Service

I struggle with similar misgivings when it comes to singing Gospel music. On Sunday 23 April the Gospel Choir of the Grace Presbyterian Church of Montclair will present its eleventh annual Gospel Celebration. Gospel music is powerful in its message and in its composition. And it is great fun to sing. Our rendition of “John the Revelator” alone is worth the price of admission. But Gospel music draws on the experiences of the African-American community, which has endured slavery, oppression, disenfranchisement, and denial of opportunity that I cannot comprehend.

What right do I have to sing such words of suffering, pain, and loss?

The controversy over the inclusion in the Whitney Biennial exhibit of a painting of Emmett Till comes to mind in this context. What right does a White artist have to adopt for her own practice a tragedy of such magnitude, one that played out in a community not her own? Strong arguments in support of and against the artist and curators continue to be made.

My reactions to the two activities, eating the Passover Seder and singing Gospel music, may also arise out of some unrecognized prejudices. After all, Motown was part of the soundtrack of my youth, and lately I’ve been listening to WBGO more frequently. But would I want to be a musician of color? Maybe not.

Nonetheless, if we are to bridge the gaps with people who are different from us, most importantly so that we can work together to address the ills that affect our world, we need to know and understand what brought those people to the place where they are now. Participating in a Seder meal as a Seder meal and not as a Christian practice might help. And I will overlook my misgivings and participate joyfully in Grace’s Gospel Celebration in the hopes that it will let me me understand the heritage of  my African-American friends in the choir a bit better.

What has brought people with whom I differ in other ways to the place where they are now? What opportunities exist for me to learn about them without pretending to be something that I am not or asking them to pretend to be something that they are not?

I hope you have and take opportunities to sit with those who are different from you and offer each other glimpses into your heritages and passions. What can you accomplish together once you get to know one another better?

I want to thank Krista Tippett of On Being for airing a conversation that provided some inspiration for this post.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

Hats Off to Career Federal Employees

It can’t be easy to be a career U.S. federal employee these days. Many federal agencies are facing budget cuts, and they are being led by political appointees whose goals might include altering the missions of their respective agencies or eliminating the agencies altogether.

Two recent personal events demonstrate that, despite uncertainty and related stressors, federal employees are still hard at work, doing their best to respond to the requests of the people who pay their salaries.

Last month we applied to renew our passports. The opportunity to renew them by mail would end soon, so we completed the forms, got the requisite mug-shot photographs, paid the fees, and sent off our applications. We did not request expedited service, as we do not have any specific plans for international travel in the near future. To our surprise, the applications were processed and the new passports arrived in less than three weeks. Hats off to the passport office staff!

More recently we witnessed a citizenship ceremony at the Peter Rodino Federal Building in Newark, NJ. 102 people, representing 33 different countries of birth, took the oath of U.S. citizenship in the first of at least two ceremonies that day in that office. The staff of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices located in the Rodino building went about the tasks associated with this ceremony, which were many, with professionalism, courtesy, and respect. It would be easy for these staffers to be perfunctory and even cynical in the performance of their duties, but they displayed a genuine enthusiasm for their part in what for many immigrants may be a dream come true. Hats off to them as well!

Judy, a brand new U.S. citizen, and her son Matt.

There may not be much I can do to express appreciation for the work that career federal employees do every day. I do like the approach that some U.S. citizens at large are taking to the plight of career staff at the EPA. They are baking and sending them cookies with personal messages of appreciation.

What other tangible things can we do to show our appreciation to the career federal employees with whom we interact?

Thanks as always for stopping by!

The Dirt on Soil

Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon CountryGrass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country by Courtney White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a pleasure to read. The title suggests that the material might be dry, but Courtney White’s writing keeps the reader engaged. The journey metaphor, though hard to follow at some points, manages to create a usable framework for the several stories.

The central conceit, and not to be overlooked as the reader takes the journey, is that building, restoring, and maintaining healthy soil is an essential component of global ecology. A two percent increase in soil carbon could offset “a large percentage of greenhouse-gas emissions going into the atmosphere.”

The journey itself takes the reader through Marin County and The San Joaquin river delta in California. The reader visits an organic farm in New Hampshire and an urban backyard in Holyoke, Massachusetts. On to Logan, Utah, Emporia, Kansas, New Orleans, and a rooftop farm in Brooklyn, New York. The author also spends time close to home in New Mexico, while planning a visit to a sheep farm in Australia.

Grass is the title floral character. Fauna include beavers, sheep, spiders, cattle, bees, chickens, and of course soil microorganisms. All of them are partners in the work of soil building.

Michael Pollan wrote the foreword. Courtney White’s other inspirations are Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, and Wendell Berry. Like them, she approaches her topic with a mixture of scientific and philosophical analyses.

Two other titles on the subject are waiting on my to-read list: The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet and Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. The author of the former, Kristin Ohlson, also has also had an article published in the April/May 2017 issue of National Wildlife magazine: http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines….

Keep the conversation going.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

The Moral Case for Fossil FuelsThe Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex J. Epstein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m writing this because I want to allow myself some credit for having read this book. It is my sincere hope that no one reading this review will believe that I endorse the arguments in it. It will take some time to more fully understand them and work through a response to them, but this may suffice for now.

Alex Epstein is certainly an intelligent, articulate writer. He makes what appears to be a compelling case for continued use of fossil fuels to allow humanity to thrive and prosper. However, even at a quick glance it also appears that he is minimizing, or even completely ignoring the costs of that continued use.

“Human ingenuity can dramatically increase the amount of coal, oil, or gas that is available” (p. 18). Yet we need to drill in permafrost regions or deep ocean waters, blast the tops of mountains away and dump the poison-laced rubble in nearby streams, or inject brine deep into the ground and trigger nontrivial seismic events in order to do so.

Throughout the book his only reference to greenhouse gasses is to carbon dioxide. This ignores other carbon compounds such as methane that are many times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

On page 27 he compares the warnings of climate scientists to financial/investment advice given in the years leading up to the 2007–2008 financial crisis: take on more debt, riskier debt, because the things securing that debt are going to increase in value indefinitely. Doesn’t his own philosophy and advice compare more favorably with that advice, and aren’t the predictions and advice of climate scientists urging us to err on the side of caution, if anything?

He states on page 24 that the number of deaths related to climate is fifty times lower now than it was 80 years ago, even though CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have risen dramatically in that time. On page 62, in arguing in favor of nuclear energy, he observes that there have been zero deaths related to nuclear energy in the free world. That is true, but Chernobyl must be considered when evaluating the safety of nuclear energy.

I couldn’t help but think of the principle that it is possible to make statistics say anything one wants them to.

Fossil fuels allow us to pursue personal happiness (pages 84–85). This is central to his argument. Moreover, he affirms that his moral philosophy is based in the philosophy of Ayn Rand (pages 138, 213).

Mr. Epstein repeatedly claims that the greatest good is human flourishing. The resources we find around us are to be used in pursuing that aim. Their value is only seen in light of that aim. As a Christian I would argue that the created world, the environment from which we extract resources, is good in and of itself (Genesis 1:25) and deserves our protection even if we need to deprive ourselves of some physical pleasures. Yes, we need to use the resources we have to provide reliable medical care to people in The Gambia (pages 38 and 39) or clean drinking water to people in many developing nations. We don’t need to use the resources we have to indulge our passion for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (p. 85) if it means that we despoil the planet in the process.

Full disclosure: I enjoy a standard of living—yes, thanks in part to fossil fuels—that is obscenely high by global standards. If you’ve read this book and find yourself in a similar frame of mind, I’d welcome your thoughts.

Thanks as always for stopping by.

In Memory of Dominick Ferrara III

Dominick Ferrara III passed away on Monday, 13 February, 2017. He was director emeritus of the Bloomfield Civic Band, having served as its director for forty-three years until his retirement in 2013. The generosity of someone who would devote so much of his life to a volunteer community band can’t be overstated.

Over twenty years ago an article in the New York Times featured Dominick and the band. The writer did not call the band an anachronism but clearly and respectfully placed community bands and their repertoire in some romantic yesteryear.

Dominick and the band’s current director, Frank Ortega, have championed the kind of repertoire that transcends time, pleases diverse audiences, keeps the band members engaged and sharp, and showcases the talents of individuals in the band. Classical transcriptions, marches, show tunes, big band  and jazz arrangements, pops favorites, and rock and roll transcriptions fill our programs. Dominick even arranged at least part of a Mozart symphony for performance by the Civic Band and the Garden State Concert Band, of which Dominick was also the director.

Dominick was generous with the time that he spent curating music for the band’s programs and conducting the rehearsals and concerts, but he was also generous in supporting and encouraging members of the band. Learning to play a band instrument was my answer to midlife angst. Before 2004 I barely knew what a baritone horn or euphonium was, let alone picking one up and attempting to play it. After only about seven months of lessons my teacher contacted Dominick and asked if he had a seat in the band for a new player. Of course Dominick said “Yes,” so on a Monday evening in September 2004 I gathered my instrument and my courage and attended my first Civic Band rehearsal.

I’m probably still inflating my achievement to say that I could play only about twenty percent of what was in the folder, but I had the good fortune to sit between two very skilled and experienced players. Weeks later Dominick insisted that I play in that season’s holiday concert. I had not experienced such stage fright in many years, if ever. To this day, over twelve years later, I still play like a middle school kid who never practices. I am still grateful beyond words for the chance to play in the band, and for Dominick’s and now Frank’s patience with the less proficient members of the band like me.

Through leading the Bloomfield Civic Band and through the Bloomfield Federation of Music Dominick helped keep alive the institution and tradition of community music making. When the Bloomfield Civic Band meets for rehearsal we leave at the door the concerns and categories and predispositions that otherwise distract and keep us apart in our daily lives. We spend a couple of hours trying to make sense of a lot of dots and squiggles. Magic happens. We make music. Periodically we get to share that music with an people who, we hope, have also left concerns and categories somewhere else and who, we hope, will be lifted and cheered by the magic of a community band.

That is my memory of Dominick Ferrara III. I am privileged to have sat and played under his baton.

Folding Tents, Leaving Town

On 14 January 2017 the Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would fold its tents for the last time and go out of business. We’ve taken our children to the Ringling Brothers circus only once that I can recall. We’ve also taken our children and grandchildren to the Big Apple Circus, which is also in bankruptcy and selling off its assets.

There are only a few degrees of separation between myself and both circuses. We have a family member on Jody’s side who is related by marriage to a dancer who has performed with both the Ringling Brothers and Big Apple circuses. Her husband, a drummer, has also performed with both. Mark Heter, who taught me to play the euphonium, played tuba for Ringling Brothers in the days when a live band accompanied the performances with tunes such as Julius Fučík’s “Entry of the Gladiators” and Mikhail Mikhailovich Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “Procession of the Sardar.” Before that he played with smaller tent circuses that he referred as “mud shows.”


I don’t have any great affection or disdain for the circus. The exploitation of animals is regrettable, especially since the species exploited by circuses—elephants and tigers in particular—also face extinction in the wild because of widespread poaching. But watching the circus is an opportunity to learn that even the most fearsome threats can be tamed, to admire the skill and athleticism of the acrobats and other performers, or to laugh at ourselves as we see ourselves reflected in the behavior of the clowns.

There’s another lesson to be learned from the role that circuses and other forms of entertainment have in our lives. Although modern circuses are not used to placate a discontented populace, how timely is the concept of “bread and circuses”? It also puts me in mind of Neil Postman’s excellent Amusing Ourselves to Death:

“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Or Business

Or we argue with tweets and Facebook posts.

As the administration of Barack Obama was also folding its tents, the New York Times published an article on his reading habits during his years in the White House. The comments accompanying the on-line article reflect a wide range of views. No doubt any group of people who happen to read this post will also have a wide range of views on the subject, and that’s cool. I believe with President Obama that one purpose for reading, and reading broadly, is to enable us to gain new and valuable perspectives on our lives, on the lives of those around us, and on the events of the day. I would hope that the days to come will find us looking to literature that will help us gain those perspectives, and not relying on the bread and circuses of our day.

Thanks for stopping by!

Winter Silence

Just before sunrise, at approximately 7:15 a.m. on New Year’s Day, our neighborhood in the Allwood section of Clifton was very quiet. No surprise, really, given the day and time. The sounds that could be heard were mostly bird calls, including jays, crows, English sparrows, and a nuthatch. A grey silhouette, shaped like a mockingbird, sat in a nearby bush but made no sound.

Sunrise over Allwood, May 2015

The birds that remain in the area during the cold months are active and vocal. They call to alert one another to the presence of predators or to the location of food sources. In a few weeks they will begin calling to attract mates and any quiet early mornings will be filled with those hopeful sounds. By coincidence our pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Paul Leggett, preached on New Year’s Day about the sometimes unrecognized presence of Christ in our midst. In discussing John 1:26b Paul said that anything that brings us joy, such as hearing bird calls, is a token of the presence of Christ.

By another coincidence Krista Tippett’s On Being broadcast on New Year’s Day 2017 featured her interview with Gordon Hempton, originally aired in May 2012. Hempton refers to quiet not as the absence of sound but as the absence of noise. Big difference. He also says that humans have evolved to be most sensitive to sounds in the frequency range of bird song. This suggests to him that one of the key indicators of a habitat or ecosystem that will support human life is the presence of bird song.

Silence can allow us to hear important things that we ought to hear or that will enlighten or gladden us. Silence can also make us uncomfortable or unsure of what’s coming next. I once attended a meeting with other members of an organization. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies for publicizing the organization and its events. I said little and mostly listened. When I was next in the presence of another member who was also at this meeting she said she was tempted to hold a mirror under my nose to see if I was still breathing. 🙂

As Ecclesiastes 3:7 tells us, there is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. Many of us think now is the time to speak, if social media activity is any measure of those inclinations. Yet few of us are truly the prophets whose voices need to be heard. (Yes, I do grasp the irony and hypocrisy of that statement.) Bill McKibben is a prophet. Wendell Berry is a prophet. Tim Keller is a prophet. [insert name of your choice here] is a prophet. I am not. I need mostly to listen, evaluate and think critically, and, because being silent does not mean being passive, act in ways that will benefit humanity, the planet, and the church.

For my part I hope 2017 will be more a time for keeping silent and for being  thoughtful, intentional, and charitable when speaking is necessary. I wish for you a year filled with beneficial silences, profitable interactions with those around you, and actions that bear good fruit. May contentment and health also be yours in abundance. Thank you as always for stopping by.

Caterpillars, Compost, and Natural Cycles

Recently our parsley patch hosted some black swallowtail caterpillars. At least two were observed over several days. A family member suggested that we remove them and display them in Jody’s first grade classroom. The expectation was that they would soon enter the chrysalis stage, and would subsequently emerge as adult butterflies.

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