Monday, August 14, 2017

SHINING A LIGHT ON FERMI’S PARADOX



            Back on June 4th, 2017 I wrote about the West Virginia county where CELL phones and other electronic appliances give way to a giant telescopic “ear” with which earthlings listen for interstellar messages. Since then I have given much thought to some of the possible implications of Fermi’s Paradox, which that research pointed me toward; an invitation as it seemed to explore some subject matter I would not ordinarily take the chance of boring my readers with. The name of Enrico Fermi, the father of the nuclear age, has been well-known to me ever since I came under the influence of a New Jersey junior high school teacher who was devoted to educating her students on much more than the Math her contract specified.
             Fermi, an Italian-born physicist and Nobel laureate who escaped his fascist homeland just in time to head up the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, had the chance in his short lifetime (he died of stomach cancer at age 53) to think logically of possibilities beyond the earth’s sphere and even the outer reaches of our galaxy. In a discussion with some of the best scientific minds of his day, he discussed what has famously become known as The Fermi Paradox. I note here that there are those who argue that the “question” is not a true “paradox”, and that beyond that, it does not have any support in established science.
             Because I am a story-teller and not a papered professor with a scholarly reputation on the line, I feel free to continue anyway.
            At the heart of the so-called paradox is the increasingly evident fact that not only are we surrounded in our galaxy by billions of other planetary systems – that is a central star (or two) such as our sun, around which a family of circling and associated planets have organized – but that many of them are similar enough to our own to suggest the possibility of a life-sustaining, earth-like environment. Add to that the likelihood that many of them would be older – perhaps much older – than our planet’s teenage level of maturity.
            The big question that possibility poses for an earth-bound thinker boils down to this: If there are other human-like populations in advanced development stages elsewhere who know about us and “our world”, and have the technological prowess to do so, why haven’t they made contact with us?
            Setting aside all the cosmic and scientific hypotheses which make Dr. Fermi’s list of 22, I am fascinated most by these two:
1.      It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.  And . . .
2.      It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy others.
If either or both of these be true, perhaps potential “visitors” may have destroyed themselves just about the time they might have said “hello” to us; OR perhaps they observed just enough of our earthly doings from a distance to decide they couldn’t afford to get involved with folks who were building big bombs and exhibiting so limited a respect for the doctrine of “loving one’s neighbor”.
            [In 1954, I was briefly tasked by the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigation (OSI) to interview citizens reporting UFO sightings near Washington’s Hanford Atomic Works as part of Project Blue Book (UFO investigations 1949-1969). Since “declassified”, I will still only mention that most of my reports came from experienced pilots, control tower operators, aviation professionals and on one occasion a gathering of 50 adult RC (radio control) hobbyists who all saw the same thing. Please don’t ask me what I think of all this; I really don’t know what to say.]
            As an octogenarian who reads history, has seen war, watches several hours of TV news every day, and has a large and loving family, I am a worrier. Why then do I work so hard at what I do every day?  I still believe that living a good life and loving my neighbors, and doing everything I can to contribute something worthwhile is important. I hope you feel the same.
                                                                                                           

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

ON THE LOOKOUT FOR LIFE’S MILESTONES



            The place known to its non-resident owners as Melody Ranch embraced some 400 acres of mostly hilly and heavily-wooded northern Vermont countryside. Its many mysteries included long-abandoned  barns and outbuildings, the remains of a prohibition-era whiskey still, and a “bottomless” pond whose black waters were said to hide a wagon and team that had fallen through thin ice one long-ago winter.
            For several years of our young married life, the rambling 13-room farm house which presided over Melody Ranch was our home, and we were the designated “care takers” of the premises. Exploring the vast and diverse acres of that 200-year-old “homestead” was a never-ending adventure, and by the end of our tenancy, we had still not seen it all.
            One day, while wandering among a mixed stand of maples, beeches and other hardwoods far from farm buildings or any roadway, I literally stumbled over what I thought at first was some random piece of stone poking its way above old leaves and forest duff. It seemed though to be out of place surrounded otherwise by a carpet of relatively unbroken woodland floor. Bending to look more closely I saw that it was the top of a square granite post, obviously hand cut to shape. There was a two-digit number barely visible through the time-encrusted build-up of lichen on the stone’s top, and I found that the whole thing was firmly and deeply set into the ground. Looking around, I could find no similar object anywhere in the area, and I thought it unlikely that any surveyor would go to such pains merely to mark a boundary line.
            The trees whose spreading canopy I stood beneath were up to a foot in diameter, and I knew they were not “Johnny-come-latelys”. In northern New England hardwood trees are what plant scientists call the “climax forest;” that is they do not just spring up on available land, but follow in orderly progression a complex series of preparatory steps. First come berry bushes and ground covers, followed by birches and poplars, beneath whose protective umbrella the conifers – spruce, hemlock and pines – make their appearance. Only after this lengthy environmental metamorphosis do the hardwoods emerge, eventually denying sunlight and moisture to the underlings they dwarf. What I was standing under was a forest which must have been more than one hundred years in the making.
            The incident played in my mind for some time until one day at the general store in the village of Worcester, I mentioned it to an old-timer. “Oh”, he exclaimed with no particular surprise, “what you came across was a mile marker on the old Hardwick stagecoach line. It used to go right through this country in the early 1800s. Every so often there was a granite post to let the driver know just where he was on the old turnpike.”
            “Old Turnpike”! I marveled. Right through what was now an unbroken forest stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions.
            That unexpected woodland discovery took place sixty years ago, and if some farmer with a chainsaw hasn’t come along to change things, those sugar maples are now probably two feet in diameter, and that old granite marker completely covered by forest detritus. Ever since that day though, I have looked at human history from a very different perspective, and as I have traveled this wide, wonderful and disparate land of ours, I have looked for the “mile markers” – in whatever guise -- along the way. In the process, I have become a pilgrim; not a mere tourist.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

SINGING OUR WAY THROUGH TIME



            I purchased my first very own musical recording at the age of ten or eleven, at a “ten cent” store in nearby Englewood, New Jersey on a Saturday family shopping trip. It was the beginning of an “indulgence” which has seen a revolution in recording science and which continues today. That early investment was a black 78 rpm wax disc with a red label featuring Bing Crosby and Kate Smith singing Don’t Fence Me In. “I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences” the two proclaimed and my Dad had to explain “hobbles” to me. It was a humble beginning. The collection of easily broken and scratched black wax “singles” continued right up to Harry James, the Andrew Sisters and the “Fire House five Plus two” and a hundred others! They’re still in my cluttered basement today (weighing more than fifty pounds per boxful!)
            The age of vinyl and the coming of first binaural and then stereo sound saw me building my own room-filling sound system which is still with me today, and a record collection which grew exponentially; and that barely mentions my Tanberg and Sony tape decks and the collection they spawned after the “experts” of the day proclaimed that “tape” was the ultimate recording medium, after which there could be nothing better. Already my wife is urging me to build a cabinet designed to “hide” my stacks of CDs from the public, but I tell her to “hang on”, the coming world of “down-loading” will obviate the need if something even more dazzling doesn’t come first.
            And that leads me to the story I really want to tell. One of the last vinyl L.P.s I purchased was an album cut in 1968 featuring Petula Clark performing some of her most famous hits, including This is My Song, Don’t Sleep in the Subway and Groovin’. My record of activity on the back of the cover indicates my last play took place on March 16th, 1969, just prior to our family move from Vermont to Utah, and the apparent retirement of the sound system which did not get “plugged in” again.
            Shortly after moving to Rockville, I learned that the daughter of one of my radio fans was a personal friend of Petula Clark, and had been for much of her life. Shortly after that, I was introduced to Petula’s daughter, Bara De Cabrol on an occasion when she had stopped in southern Utah to pay a visit to that family. By coincidence, I was the speaker at the event being visited on that occasion which led to a brief exchange of correspondence with her and thereby a personal connection after she returned to her home in NYC, from which I have enjoyed a most pleasant memory.
            Not long ago I received an unexpected, but very much appreciated and timely gift from my Utah friend in the form of a brand new, 2016 CD recording of Petula Clark titled FROM NOW ON, just released from a recording studio in London. Petula, at age 84, and still singing her heart out. I listen to it with some regularity, but especially when I need to be reminded that like the English lady with a full head of curly blonde hair, I yet have places to go and worthwhile things to do.
            Alongside the well-known lyrics from out of a famous past such as these: Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise is a new poetic challenge found in such as these my favorites:
             I don’t need to know what your life has been, I’ve been there too and I have seen. All that really matters is From Now On. . . those last three words the song’s title.  And perhaps the most personally meaningful of all :
            Wandering around the world I’ve seen, the good the bad the in-between, no one is perfect, this we all know but my heart and soul keep telling me Never let go. Keep doing what you’re doing, and giving it all you can. NEVER LET GO.
            Not only is her voice “youthful” and as lovely as ever, but she writes and sings her own music, and adds piano, harp and string accompaniments along the way. I for one hope the inimitable and unstoppable Petula Clark never let’s go.

Monday, July 17, 2017

LESSONS LEARNED ON A WALK IN THE WOODS



                More than four decades ago I rendered a pen-and-ink sketch of a charming wild creature with which I enjoyed a near-magical encounter while living at 7,000 feet in the folds of a Wasatch Mountain pine forest. I later penned an essay titled The Ghost that Flies at Midnight telling the story. The secretive nocturnal “creature” happened to be the North American Flying Squirrel, and my connection with this tiny and mysterious wild animal was short-lived and singular; I have never met anyone else who has even seen one in the wild.
                Recently I have been considering the claim by a segment of environmental scientists that modern professionally-managed forests cannot replace what is lost with the removal and disappearance of natural, undisturbed old growth forests. Coincidentally, I have been reading a book about the world of American owls – including the environmental changes which have challenged – and even threatened the survival of – the “world” inhabited by these fascinating birds-of-the-night. The connective tissue between these two subjects lies in the realization that these same “cute” flying squirrels constitute the principal food source for the rapidly-disappearing North American Spotted Owl, both of which species live almost exclusively and entirely in old growth forests.
                The flying squirrels themselves depend for food upon the false truffle which they find attached to the roots of certain trees, which they in turn help to propagate as they scatter its spores in their own activities. The truffles benefit the trees by supplying specific nutrients not readily synthesized naturally. As a further step in this cycle of inter-dependency, the pellets excreted by the owls after consuming a squirrel further spread the truffle spores throughout the forest floor. This arboreal drama is but one example of the kind of symbiosis which is a hallmark of natural old growth forests – among a small remnant of which – I was apparently blessed to live for 40 years without realizing it.
                The argument between the timber industry and environmentalists just a few years ago made the spotted owl an iconic, half humorous (and ill-chosen) central figure. Those arguing for the preservation of old growth forest remnants were not merely concerned about one species of owl, nor were they trying to put an end to all timber cutting. The spotted owl became a symbol because it was discovered to be one obvious casualty of a thoughtless (but profit-driven) wholesale clear-cutting strategy. In the process of defending its case the giant timber companies put forward the argument that the “managed” forest – re- planted and cultivated forests such as those they proposed to fill the giant open spaces left behind after their mechanized harvests – would in the end be more productive and just as beautiful – as the primal forests, they would in time replace. And they point to living examples to prove it.
                The term old growth has a very specific and well-established definition. It refers to stands of ancient groves of mature, never-before disturbed integrated species of trees, together with the supporting communities of flora and fauna which have developed and matured with them over long periods of time; hundreds of years.
                What we know now but might not have fully understood just a few ago is that once “disturbed” or destroyed these priceless pieces of natural history cannot be renewed or “managed” back into existence. The complex combinations of inter-related life forms – from snails and salamanders to nesting birds, migrating animals and insects by the millions will not return. On my annual visits to the Pacific Northwest I am exposed to visual reminders of every side to this unfolding story: vast stretches of decades-old ugly scrub land left behind by mindless clear-cutting, new replacement forests of baby conifers of identical size and geometric spacing reflecting the sense of responsibility to the future on the part of the modern timber industry, and the soldier-like stands of middle-age trees in “managed” mountain-side “regiments” awaiting the chain saws of some carefully planned future harvest.


                And I continue to experience the heart-stopping thrill of walking beneath forest giants that are 300 and 400 years old, in the midst of the lushness of a green-and-growing biodiversity, the un-measurable dimensions of which boggle the mind of the thinking visitor. Here, even the dead standing, and supine and decaying trees are important citizens of the primal system, supporting the birthing of new growth, nesting sites for myriad forest creatures and thousands of kinds of fungi, lichen and molds – all contributors to the whole.       I can only hope that we will always have a sufficiency of thinking, caring people in our society to insure the survival of our disappearing old growth forests.