Sunday, October 21, 2007

Cheap Tequila

October 13, 2007

Even though I was planning my first breakfast on Moose Hill in quite some time, I slept late. Just as well, it was only about 42 degrees when I left home at 9:15 on the touring bike, and for the first time this season, I was thinking I should have worn the full-fingered gloves.

I took a round-about way to Moose Hill, first heading down South Main Street to our local farm. There are darn few farms of any kind in the Boston area these days, and like many of the few that remain, this one is something of a boutique farm, selling some local produce and lots of expensive imported goodies to well-heeled suburbanites.

I went to the farm to look at the corn. One crop this farm does grow and sell in abundance is corn. Unlike the maize of the American Midwest, this corn is for human consumption. We buy a few ears every year and simply roast them on the gas grill. Delicious!

I’ve been thinking about corn lately and the folly of growing corn to replace gasoline. I read that it takes something like 1.0 gallons of fuel to produce 1.3 gallons of ethanol. When all the energy to till the fields, produce the fertilizer, distill the alcohol and transport the stuff is factored in, I’d be surprised if it was that efficient. It just strikes me as wrong that good crop land, fossil water and fossil soil would be dedicated to replacing the fossil fuel that powers gas-guzzlers. I’d rather think the American breadbasket was producing nutritious food for people.

But hey, if much of our corn crop went into powering Hummers, maybe we wouldn’t really be losing that much. So much of the corn grown on corporate farms of places like Iowa is not used to produce high-quality food but goes into high-fructose corn syrup or is fed to cattle in vast feed lots. Would America suffer with less cheap soda pop and fewer fast-food hamburgers?

Last weekend, we traveled from Boston to Rochester, New York. As we drove by miles of idle farmland and thousands of acres of abused low-quality forests, particularly on the plains to the south of the big lakes, I wondered if under-utilized land like that could be used to grow energy and the most valuable farmland of the Midwest could be saved for high-quality food.

Most of the local corn at Ward’s Farm had been harvested. A small block still stood, brown and dry, drooping tassels swaying in the breeze. Perhaps this will be harvested for Halloween decorations rather than the table. Small, unsubsidized family farms must find many creative ways to pay the bills.

My plan was to have breakfast at the lower Billings Farm meadow, so I left the open farmland and pedaled through the forest up the back side of Moose Hill. Just a year ago I had a near-religious experience in that meadow (See “Promises to Keep”, Oct. 14, 2006.) so I rode slowly down the gravel road with some anticipation. But unlike last year when the whole field was teeming with busy birds, this year things were quiet. Even the trees seemed subdued. Maybe it was the dry late summer we had, but the autumn leaves seemed more brown than colorful. It was almost ominous.

I dismounted and pushed the bike as I looked for a place to sit. Just over a month ago, I had been diagnosed with Lyme disease after feeling really crappy for a few weeks with a variety of weird symptoms and going through all manner of unhelpful tests. Because the Lyme came so closely on the heels of surgery I had in July, the doctors kept trying to relate my symptoms to the surgery and were not considering other possibilities. Thanks to an ever-vigilant wife reminding me to tell the doctor about all the Moose Hill deer ticks crawling on me in June, a proper diagnosis was made and three weeks of antibiotics solved my problem.

The bacteria are now dead (I hope!). I could feel them dying the day after I took my first pill because I was sicker than ever. Now, I’m feeling great, but there is a lingering fear. Will I ever again be able to go to Moose Hill during tick season (Is there a “tick season”?) without worrying about ticks? They are so tiny and hard to see. I never showed the classic bulls-eye rash. Admittedly, my exposure in June was extreme with well over a dozen ticks on my body, but all it takes is one bite. Once bitten, twice shy. I worry that my tick paranoia will taint every trip I make to the woods I enjoy so much.

I went to my favorite spot in the sun by the old stone wall. I like to sit there inconspicuously on the fringe of the field and watch nature’s dramas while sipping coffee. This time the ferns all seemed tall and looked as if every frond tip could hold a tick eagerly waiting for a chance to grasp a passing animal. Was that a deer trail passing through that gap in the rocks? I could see I had a problem.

I finally decided to sit out in the open in a mossy spot where the vegetation was very low. The only birds I saw were passing overhead. Flocks of grackles and blackbirds were moving south. Squawking blue jays flew over the oaks, perhaps looking for the sweetest acorns. I lone pair of geese went by held together by their invisible bond. I hoped they were the migrating variety that prefers marshes to golf courses. The only animal sounds I heard were the chipmunks still clucking from the walls. The black gum that was so central to the excitement last year when its ripe fruits drew scores of riotous robins was barren.

Sitting in a favorite field on a lovely fall morning, I should have been in a state of restfulness and calm instead of worrying about insidious threats. My troubled mind wandered to other times when one bad experience permanently altered my outlook. I remembered the first time, maybe 15 years ago, I hurt my back working. Over-enthusiastic post-hole digging led to four days on the living room floor. I never took my back for granted again. Going further back, I recalled the time in freshman year of college (The legal drinking age in New York was 18 in those days.) that we were low on funds and bought cheap tequila rather than the preferred Jose Cuervo. An evening of shots with salt licked from the wrist followed by sucking of lemons led to a night on the bathroom floor. I never drank hard liquor with the same innocent abandon again.

Scanning the meadow for anything that would rescue my attention from unpleasant thoughts, I was startled to spot a huge hornet’s nest. I approached the nest to see it was a bald-faced hornet’s nest over two feet high and over a foot in diameter hanging just above my head in a red maple in the middle of the field, dangling like a deadly fruit ready to bring much pain and misery to anyone foolish enough to pluck it greedily from its slender twig. The nest was constructed with over-lapping gray papery scales that looked a little like oyster shells arranged to shed water downward. There were two openings near the bottom, one about the size of a wren hole, the other smaller. I watched as a steady procession of hornets (wasps, really) came and went. They had black bodies with white bands on their abdomens and white patches on their faces – hence the name, I guess.

I think it was one of these wasps that blew in the window of the minivan some years ago. It stung me just over the heart and the pain was so intense I thought I might lose control of the vehicle and plunge my load of adolescents into a pond. I can only imagine the excruciating agony experienced by someone blundering into a whole hive. I found it a bit sad to think that these wasps replaced the four honey bee hives that used to be in this meadow. I imagine they were killed by the mysterious bee plague sweeping the country.

It was time to head home, so I returned to my bicycle. The joy of riding softened the disappointment that I was not able to find the peaceful state of mind that keeps me going back to Moose Hill. I fear that our search for cheap solutions to our energy needs will only give us a bad hangover, but for a few moments at least, I was human-powered and free of those concerns.

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At 8:49 PM, Blogger lené said...

Hey Mojoman, I'm glad to hear you got a diagnosis & treatment. It's interesting how one difficult situation can, as you say, suggest others and cause you to move more cautiously into the future. I hope the caution will simply heighten your awareness to the beauties you would have passed by had you not been stopped in your tracks before. :) Happy Autumn (oh, and I'm with you on questioning the value of ethanol as an alternative fuel source).

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good to have you back Mojoman. We missed you.

At 11:03 PM, Blogger nina said...

As long as you're able to return to being outdoors and find refreshment in doing so--having concerns for safety or health are just higher degrees of respect for whatever could take that away, aren't they?
I hope you find this passes after time. I think you will.

At 9:35 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

I'm with Nina. There's some degree of danger in anything we choose to do; I'd rather choose to be outside in the natural world that I love so much than to be safe nside with the tv.

I wonder too how much land would have to be planted with corn in order to meet our needs - what a monoculture that could create.

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Larry said...

I do fear Lyme disease.-I do avoid powerlines or high risk areas if I notice them jumping on me from the start.-I also tuck my pants in my socks and use insect repellant if I feel that I'm in a tick zone.-
As for ethanol-hopefully we will eventually switch to something more efficient, but at least people are starting to look towards alternative means of energy.


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