Archives for the month of: September, 2020

Listening to remastered Prince, relevant as ever. 

Signs of the times…

Marked by the equinox last week we  transitioned into autumn at my location. Amazing how the leaves suddenly start to turn color., temperatures drop, drizzly rain falls.  The cows are still grazing outside, but the quality of the grass is no longer sufficient and their diet is supplemented with silage. For us cheesemakers (my current manifestation) this means we can no longer make a type of mountain cheese. No no, no real mountains here, but this type of cheese is made when cows spend their days outside, meadowing. When making this cheese, different bacteria are responsible for acidification (lactose turns to lactic acid), they get active at higher temperatures, making the curd drier, the cheese can ripen longer and get a stronger taste. Bergkase season is over…that is, we will take care of them the whole winter long in the cellar, the living rinds, who like the dark and cooler places.

Taking in the fresh air, the forest floor still covered in last year’s leaves, soon a new layer will be added, the moist smell of mushrooms sprouting up. I pick up a black acorn, mmm, looks different. Turns out this is not an exotic species, but a sign of stress, dry times earlier this year probably caused the immature seeds to die mid-growth. Drought, another sign of our times.

Dung beetles are having a field day, but hey, there is enough room for them to roam around. So I am surprised when I look down to see these two get in each other’s way, butting heads, a power struggle for what? Maybe I am missing something, mmm sign of the times? 

“The image of lost civilizations is compelling; cities buried by drifting sands or tangled jungle, ruin and desolation where once there were people and abundance.” No this is not a recent news headline, but the opening sentence of Joseph Tainter’s book on the collapse of complex societies, published in 1988 and one of my favorite books in my early archaeology days. Tainter continues: “How could flourishing civilizations have existed in what are now such devastated circumstances? Did people degrade the environment, did the climate change, or did civil conflict lead to collapse…the implication is clear: civilizations are fragile, impermanent things.”

Interestingly, his book is an important one of only a handful I know on the topic. Maybe the reason for this is that we try to ignore this reality and assume, like Tainter states, that we prefer to “believe that modern civilization, with its scientific and technological capacity, its energy sources, and its knowledge of economics and history, should be able to survive whatever crisis ancient and simpler societies found insurmountable. We prefer to study the development of societies to ever more complexities, Societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. For instance the Romans ‘solved’ the problem of declining agricultural production in the face of its rising population by conquering neighbors and appropriate their energy surplus. Such practices of imperialism and colonialism are still the order of the day, a mainstay of human history.

Reading the news these days makes you wonder how long it will take before balance of power will shift, when will current societies implode. For long, the western world could divert attention away from climate change effects, from social inequalities, but this year seems different, global pandemic, and rampant wildfires hit close to everybody’s home. People ordered to stay home, people forced to move. 

While resourced depleted, a common characteristic behavior of societies in decline is what is known as conspicuous consumption, making a show of wealth, of what is left, to display confidence of economic and political power. 

Waking up on Sunday morning and opening the paper then, two articles that immediately catch my eye.

The first is an article in a series on climate crisis migration, and this time focused on migration from within the US, raising the question, where will people go?

mu last flight during COID times, from New York to Amsterdam…

Apparently people go nowhere, The second article is maybe even more shocking. As we are all made aware that our flying behavior is a major cause of or our rising temperatures, some people miss the flying very much that  airlines have successfully begun to offer flights that return to the same place as it departs from. 

I hardly dare to ask: the Collapse of Complex societies, are we experiencing it in action?

My window is not very big. In fact there are two side by side, each 70 by 120 cm in size, opening up two ways, from the middle I can open them up by pulling inside, or I can slant them from the top. I am on the first floor, or second floor if you are American. My writing table is in front of the window, perfect for viewing the world outside from where I sit.  The roof from the ground floor extends out from my window and is covered in succulent vegetation. It gives the idea of a garden of about 5 meters beyond which I see trees and some open green. Right in front is a weeping birch tree. The top of the tree must have been cut when the tree was young, making the tree look a bit truncated with some top branches going sideways. The top trunk now forms a little platform where birds can perch. Mostly ordinary pigeons.

Pigeons. As a young adult living in Amsterdam, pigeons on Dam square were both characteristic and annoying  My current window provides another perspective. Maybe it says more about the absence of excitement at my current location, but I find the pigeons quite entertaining. When they take off from the platform, they flap hard and loud, ascending at about 30 degree angle, when they reach a certain speed, still in my view, they dive down, same angle to the height they started off from, then the flapping/dive cycle is repeated. It makes me smile, my view of pigeons forever changed. It goes to show, it is good to change your window on the world every now and then. 

It reminds me when I first realized exactly how important this is. I was the same young adult, studying what was then called, Pre-Columbian archaeology, fascinated by the incredible cultures, art and architecture of the Americas, intrigued by a book on Andean astronomy, called “At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky, by Gary Urton. It was incredible to read but difficult to understand, especially since it was Southern Hemisphere, different constellations. More importantly, the current night sky in light-polluted northern Europe is not very spectacular, what did I know.* I read about the Milky Way and other constellations, and thought this was metaphoric or myth material, not kidding. Only a little while later, setting up my tent on the rim of the Grand Canyon, in anticipation of descending the next day, darkness falls, there it is: the Milky Way in full glory. [expletives here]

window dreaming

Not to downplay my small window, it is great to appreciate the small stuff, the pigeons, the details, to question possible connections. But WOW, is it good to get the Big Picture, if only every now and then. 

Of course, the Milky Way is a metaphor, it refers to the galaxy that contains our solar system, the name derives from how the spiral band of stars appears to our view from Earth, it is certainly not the only name for this phenomenon.** The real milky way is where I am now, from cows to Kaserei, where I make cheese and yoghurt and gaze out from my little window to the world. 

The milk way, from the milking tank, into the milk tank.


**Milky Way elsewhere:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_names_for_the_Milky_Way


*Germany had its own spectacular culture, and ancient map of the stars, its antiquity still a matter of debate: 
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/13/science/nebra-sky-disk.html?surface=home-discovery-vi-prg&fellback=false&req_id=675307139&algo=identity&imp_id=921497973&action=click&module=Science%20%20Technology&pgtype=Homepage

I am near a stopover landing site, of geese that is, Anser anser. The geese fly back and forth, landing in a field nearby, for the time being, fueling up. Or, who knows, since ‘climate change’ has also changed migration patterns. Warm winter weathers are a lot closer to their summer breeding grounds these days.

First I hear the quack and honk, then I watch them fly over in V formation. I wonder, will they stay here or still make their trek further south, to Spain. Climate change has changed something else. Here in northern Europe, agricultural landscapes have expanded, providing the geese with easy accessible food. The geese thrive; socio-ecological conflicts ensue. 

Even though none of this is their fault, they pay the price. Man hunts geese. Men like birds, but not when they get on their turf, they should stay in areas we have set aside as designated ‘natural landscapes.’

I look out from my window, resting from long days of turning milk into milk products.  Staring into the green canopy cover bordering agricultural lands is relaxing after long days of white fluid. The fields are mainly to feed the cows, the geese join the dish. From my little window on the world, it is possible to get an idea of the complexity of it all. I am eating less and less of it. 

My window view is pretty green, watching clouds bobbing over the tree canopy to  keep us all moisturized. Evening clouds, the low angle of the sun in the northern hemisphere can turn this view into dramatic scenes in this otherwise peaceful rural village, where cows moo and deer bleat and bellow. The tree canopy already turned black, the sun’s energy reflecting from the atmospheric scenery into dark blues and blazing reds. 

greyclouds

redclouds

Trees, majestic beings, pumping moisture around our globe continuously, almost quietly, forming clouds that can be transported by circulating winds. All the while their trunks record what happened during their lifetime, collectively forming the prototype BIG data that we have learned to read and interpret to a certain extent through the science of dendrochronology and dendroclimatology. The number of rings can give us an idea how old they are, the thickness of the rings providing us some information on how fast they were growing, the temperature/moisture relationships at the time of growth. Archival beings, even though they stand up straight, non-violent, they get into trouble sometimes. Forest Fires. Wildfires have happened throughout their lifetime, it can form scars on their trunks and become part of their archive. Trees have adapted to minimize trouble. Some trees, like the cork oak, are protected by their fire retardant bark. Heat and low moisture conditions can makes sparks fly and ignite a local fire, but after a burn, new life can rise from the ashes.

sicily

Ever since plants started to grow on the Earth’s land surfaces, fires have been part of the game, it happens in the thin boundary layer where the Earth interacts with its atmosphere,  influencing Earth’s ecosystems since at least 420 million years ago, when our atmosphere reached oxygen levels high enough for spontaneous combustion to take place, ignited by  lightning and other sources. 

Wild fires burn commonly through the understory, leaving mature trees scarred, but living. The burn scars, combined with tree ring data, present a record of wildfire behavior. 

scar

“Natural forests are not a continuous expanse of old trees. Forest fires create a mosaic of burnt and unburnt areas, shaping the species composition and the age distribution of the forest. Fires open up the tree canopy, letting light in, releasing nutrients to the understory, and aiding regrowth. Charcoal changes soil structure, and charred tree trunks become habitats of great importance for the biological diversity of the forest—both above and below ground. Many rare species, especially fungi and insects, depend on the variation forest fires create”, according to scientists from the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy research. 

Fast forward, wildfires are raging around the globe today like never before, hotspots like Australia, California, Brazil, Indonesia and Portugal,  leading to record loss of tree cover. Not only that, their function to absorb heat trapping gasses when they are alive, turns around to emit those gases, contributing to more heat, spiraling in troublesome direction.

What is new, the atmosphere has changed over time and there were probably times with more vegetation and more oxygen for sure. It is hard to know, since we have only started to keep instrumental records since a little over a hundred years, when we also started with fire management, preventing wildfires to keep our population safe from fire hazards and concentrate our trees in tree stands, like reservations. This has however lead to a strange situation. Many of today’s forest reserves have never been as unnatural as they are today, which, it turns out, is burning our forests in novel, ‘truly unusual’ ways, burning into the canopies.  How do we know…?

Fire anthropologist (yes anthropologists are a varied bunch) Roos and his colleague Swetnam constructed a model to analyze 1500 years of climate and fire patterns. Droughts and rising temperatures have been part of that record and mega fires like our present ones, could have possible happened, yet they didn’t. They suggest that over the last century, live stock grazing and firefighting, which in combination have created more dense forests that are more vulnerable than ever to extreme droughts. 

 I enjoy my green view, fully aware that I am in ‘cow land’ where grazing lands, are interspersed with forest stands, well managed, tree reservations. The last few years summer droughts have caused problems already, and summer temperatures are rising to heights that we have never measured before since we started measuring in the early 20th century. Like many things in our modern lives, trees are managed and manipulated. Trees know better, reservations are not a good idea.

https://phys.org/news/2017-03-fire-scarred-trees-years-natural-cultural.html

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120516120304.htm 

https://www.globalforestwatch.org