Monday, July 28, 2014

Where Late the Sweet Blackbirds Sang

My spouse and I have been walking on the Vestal Rail Trail in Vestal, NY (a trail created from an old railroad right of way) for years.

We've enjoyed a wetlands at one end of the trail (no longer an end because the trail was extended last month, but to me it will always be an end).  We used to enjoy seeing the red winged blackbirds, the males with the red mark on their wing. When we saw them in the wetlands, we knew spring was here.

They would perch on the cat tails, each (I imagine) guarding its own territory. We would enjoy their calls all through the summer.

These blackbirds were common to the land we owned so many years ago in Arkansas.  They are memories of our youth.  I am not a birder, but I love birds.  I always have.

We hadn't been to the Trail in two or three weeks.  We went there yesterday for our exercise walk.

And this was the wetland.  Or, rather, that was where it used to be.

This is what was left, as yesterday, in a far corner.

Why?  I ask myself.  I can't seem to find the answer online.  Why did someone dig it up?

A sad day.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Civil War Sunday - The Saddest Affair

150 years ago today, another terrible chapter in the United States Civil War was about to be written.

War is an ugly business, and civil war (so misnamed!) may be the most ugly business of all.

As we join this story in progress, the city of Petersburg, Virginia, about 25 miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, has been under siege by the Federals since the middle of June, 1864.  Petersburg, then with a population of some 18,000, was one of the few supply routes to Richmond still uncut by Union forces.  Its railroad connections were crucial to the Confederate war effort.

On June 15, 1864, the Federals mounted a large assault against Petersburg. The city had been well fortified, in 1862, by a ten mile trench line called the Dimmock Line, This line, built by both slave and Confederate soldier labor, enabled Petersburg to defend itself.

For three days the Union army fought, attempting to cut the remaining railroad links. The Confederates successfully defended Petersburg.

Finally, the Federals realized they had to lay siege to the city.  Both sides dug in.

Summer passed, in the hot, broiling sun.  And, in Virginia, the sun is broiling indeed.

The entire story is a fascinating one.  I am only providing the barest of details.

Someone got a bright idea.  One of the Union regiments is composed of soldiers who had been coal miners in their civilian lives.  Why not have them dig a mine shaft and tunnel under the Confederate lines, pack the tunnel under the lines with explosives, and set it off?

Then the Union would send in troops, well trained for the assault, who would take advantage of the death and confusion after the torpedoes (what contact mines were called in those days) exploded. Victory would belong to the Union.  The siege of Petersburg would be over.  And the war would be over not long after as the Confederates, their last major supply lines cut, would have no choice but to surrender.

Except - things didn't go exactly according to plan.

The mine shafts were started, but the Union high command lost interest soon after.  Nevertheless, although the high command considered it a busywork project, the tunneling continued.  In a remarkable effort, this tunneling was done by hand.  A ventilation system had to be designed that couldn't be seen by the Confederates, and it was designed.  Quoting from Wikipedia:

"The mine was in a "T" shape. The approach shaft was 511 feet (156 m) long, starting in a sunken area downhill and more than 50 feet (15 m) below the Confederate battery, making detection difficult. The tunnel entrance was narrow, about 3 feet (1 m) wide and 4.5 feet (1.4 m) high. At its end, a perpendicular gallery of 75 feet (23 m) extended in both directions."

After a failed battle in late July, the Union high command decided the tunneling/explosion idea wasn't so bad after all.  Again, quoting:

"The Federals filled the mine with 320 kegs of gunpowder, totaling 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg). The explosives were approximately 20 feet (6 m) underneath the Confederate works and the T gap was packed shut with 11 feet (3 m) of earth in the side galleries and a further 32 feet (10 m) of packed earth in the main gallery to prevent the explosion blasting out the mouth of the mine."

On July 27, 1864, the packing of explosives into the tunnel was started.  On July 28 the powder charges were armed.

And then.....

The troops that had been training, for some two weeks, for the assault after the torpedoes went off were "United States Colored Troops" - in other words, free blacks in a segregated Union Army.  But Union General Meade, the day before the scheduled explosion, decided he didn't want to use the "colored" troops.  He claimed they would be exposed to needless slaughter.  Other people say Meade believed black troops were inferior fighters.

So, at the last minute, white troops were assigned to the assault - untrained and unprepared.

On July 30, 1864, at 4:44 am, the explosives were detonated.  And, the battle commenced. 

The untrained Union troops found themselves basically entering a pit with steep, sandy, unstable footing.  And once the Confederates recovered from the surprise, the slaughter commenced.  All day they fought, in that broiling sun, in conditions too horrible to imagine.

The Confederates maintained their lines.  On August 1, a truce was called so the dead and injured could be recovered.  Bands from both sides played music, for two hours, while the bodies were brought out.  Over 5,000 casualties from both sides combined, in a slaughter that would win new awards for military stupidity.

General Grant said "It was the saddest affair I have witnessed in the war."

And the siege dragged on for another eight terrible months.

Pictures of the Crater in 1865 and today. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sustainable Saturday - The First Tomato, The Last Garden?

A little peak into our community garden.

Yesterday, we harvested our first tomatoes from the Otsiningo Park Community Garden in Binghamton, New York.  It's finally tomato season here in upstate New York - a fleeting few weeks of tomato bliss.  These tomatoes, incidentally, were consumed as soon as I took their picture.

Our tomato plants are loaded with flowers.

The onions are almost ready for harvest.  This is our most reliable crop, year after year.

Our butternut squash still has a way to go.  But as I watch them grow towards maturity, the cold winds of fall start blasting in my mind, even as the hot sun of summer warms me.  After all, these are - winter squash.

And winter rules here with a heavy hand.  We are out of its grip for a few short months.

Our sunflowers, many of them volunteers, fill our garden plots and fill my vase at home. 

Tomorrow, we plan to plant borage seeds, supplied to us by a fellow blogger.  We haven't seen their blue in our garden for almost 30 years - why?

But our plants are blissfully unaware that they are in danger.

The community garden we've been gardening in for many years may be closing.  This may be its last season.

If this comes about, this is the second community garden that has folded on us in our almost 30 years living in the Binghamton, New York area.

We've suspected this for a while and now it appears the end may be coming.

I will blog about this more another time.  But for now, we enjoy summer while we may.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Will a Watched Seed Germinate?

Before I dig in (in a manner of speaking) into today's subject, I wanted to thank everyone who commented yesterday on my "Never Too Late to Learn" post. My dear readers, you are the best.  Thank you for your comments.

And now, I have something else to be thankful for. 

Today's subject is the Paw Paw, which I blogged about last November.

The Paw Paw is a native American fruit.  I had made their acquaintance in the early 1980's when living in rural Arkansas. Where I lived in Arkansas is a USDA plant hardiness zone 7a (meaning normal minimum temperatures of 0 to 5 degrees F).

Last November, I found paw paw fruit at a Binghamton, New York localvore store.  It had been grown right in Binghamton, zone 5b (-10 to -15 degrees).  Obviously, this man had succeeded in growing them in our area.  I bought one fruit and kept its six seeds in the fridge all winter, in damp peat moss.  In spring, I planted the seed, one per small container, and kept on my back porch.

I had been about to give up hope, when, earlier this month, I saw signs of germination.  This is what the most advanced seed looked like on July 20.  The shell of the seed is covering the leaves, the seedling rooted in the ground.  Each day the seed husk held higher and higher.

July 23.  At this point, five of the six seeds have germinated.

Today, July 24, the seedling stands proudly, straight as a soldier.  I am thankful it's gotten this far.

In some ways, this is like watching a chick hatch out of an egg.  Hatching is a longer process than you may think, as the chick chips away at the eggshell's inside with its "egg tooth". You wonder, until the moment that egg cracks enough for the chick to fall out, if the chick will succeed or not.

Now I will be in suspense until the leaves escape from the seed husk.  I know I can't hurry it along, any more than you can hurry a chick breaking out of its egg.

Will my seedlings succeed?  I can't wait to find out.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Never Too Late to Learn

I live in blogging fear.

I live in fear, every time I post something, that I am going to be read by a word nerd, and I am going to be found lacking. 

What if I dangle a modifier? What if I put a period inside the closing parenthesis instead of outside? What if I misplace a modifier?  What if I use "whom" instead of "who"?

Will they still need me?  Will they still read me?

Although I knew, from around the age of four, that I wanted to write, that I needed to write, English was not my favorite subject. Not even close. History was.

I lived in fear of my English classes.  I was not a good speller.  My teachers liked to have weekly spelling quizzes.  Even in 10th grade, I was still being subjected to them. I think I failed a lot of them.

One of my teachers even entered me into a SPELLING BEE to motivate me to improve my spelling.  Needless to say, I failed in the first round.  I sat alone in the room where the losers were to gather, as everyone else (it seemed) progressed to glory. 

I know I occasionally commit a Word Crime.

I know grammar is the structure of the written English language.  As someone interested in history, I know what happens when a written document isn't clear.  (Prime example: the second amendment to the United States Constitution.)

I have always struggled with grammar.

 "10 items or less" doesn't ruffle my feathers at all.

I don't pay attention to the Oxford comma.

My mother, may she rest in peace, loved the English language.  She tried to teach me how to diagram sentences.  My school didn't teach that skill.  She thought it would help me out.  It didn't.  I can't even remember how to do it.

My spouse's school taught sentence diagramming. Go figure. He loves spelling and grammar.  He has an extensive vocabulary.

My sister in law majored in English in college.

I'm a college graduate, and I know it is never too late to learn.  I have the power to become a word nerd, too.    The Internet can be my tool.  I can become a better writer through self-education.

Being in my sixties may be a chance to have a different kind of second childhood.  It may give me the opportunity to finally learn grammar. It is giving me the desire to read some of the classics that I didn't want any part of back in high school  The Great Gatsby.  One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Pride and Prejudice.

Or, at least, the debut novel California, which is written in my favorite genre - dystopian literature.

Let's see where I go with this.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Summer Ramblings -Ode to Joy

How many libraries do you know that have their own garden?

We have a library on the edge of downtown Binghamton, New York.  Just outside the entrance is a garden.  There is a church across the street with a carillion.  As we entered the garden, it was playing a song.

"Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee"! my friend exclaimed.
"Beethoven's Ode to Joy!", I replied.

We were both right.

The first thing we saw was a rose with three different colored flowers.  I've seen two differently colored flowers on a rose plant - but three?
The hydrangeas are coming into bloom.
Here's a close up.

The hostas are finishing up.  Here's what they looked like at the beginning of July.
And finally, also from earlier this month, the library day lillies.

The garden has a gazebo, and a picnic bench.  One day I may just bring my lunch out there.
After I got home, I looked up the lyrics to the hymn my friend heard. It ends:
"Ever singing, march we onward,
victors in the midst of strife;
joyful music lifts us sunward
in the triumph song of life."
Perfect music for enjoying a garden.

Do you know of another library that has a garden?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

It Wasn't Supposed to End Like This

July 20, or 21 (depending on where you live) was the 45th anniversary of mankind's first steps on the moon by astronaut Neil Armstrong- unless you are someone like my father's father, who went to his grave thinking it was a Hollywood fabrication.

Neil Armstrong dead some two years now, never lived to see this anniversary.   Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, waging a social media campaign.

My personal memories? That day, July 20, I went with my Dad to see a space exhibit in midtown Manhattan - and late that night, we watched Neil Armstrong take his step on a flickering black and white TV picture in our Bronx apartment.

Who would have expected the space program would end (in my mind, it's ended) the way it did?  With a whimper?

In July of 2011, I wrote this blog post, and I would like to repeat it today.

Fly Me to the Moon....

I interrupt the normal programming of this blog to bring you this special announcement.

The United States space program ended today.

Today has left a large hole in my heart.  And perhaps one in our country's heart.

I was a child of the Space Race.  In October of 1957, Sputnik 1 was launched.  Ever hear of it? Or the Soviet Union?  Well...

The Soviet Union was a "union" of Russia and a number of other nearby countries.  Their government was "communist", committed to the destruction of the capitalist system - and our country.  Or, so we were told.  Those were scary times.  When I was a toddler, being called a Communist could be enough to cause someone to lose their job.  There were special congressional hearings.  Blacklists.

The Soviets had "The Bomb".   We and they fought what was called the "Cold War".  If they won and took us over, all would be lost.  The Soviets were totally evil- that is what I was taught, as a schoolchild growing up in the 1950's and early 60's.

When the Soviets launched the first satellite in October of 1957, our country was thrown into a panic.  We needed to get our children educated in the sciences, and quickly, so we could get into space with our satellite before the Communists took space over.   This drive accelerated even more quickly when the Soviets put the first man into space in 1961.

We as a country committed ourselves to reach the moon in a speech given by President Kennedy in May of 1961. 

50 years ago, we decided to go to the moon.  We would beat the Soviets there.  We knew they were trying to get there, too.

Competition is the heart of the capitalist system.

I saw some of the various launches in school.  Others, on our black and white TV at home.  First, we blasted one man into sub-orbit.  Then, one man into orbit.  Then, into many orbits.

And then, the Soviets took a walk in space. So we had to also.

To make a long story short, we made it to the moon first.  Several more missions got to the moon and then in the 1970's we totally changed direction.  We decided to have a program with partially disposable space crafts.  We haven't been to the moon since that decision and, in fact, no one else has been, either.

In the middle of all this, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.  Probably a lot of the urgency disappeared with the Soviets.  We no longer had an enemy to compete with.

And then we realized it was way too expensive for the government to keep up the space program.  Private industry would have to take over, and that is part of the reason for what happened today.  The entire story is complicated, and this is a very shallow telling of the tale.

Today, several generations know of the space program mainly for Tang, and freeze dried ice cream.  But, in reality, it enriched our lives in so many ways we can't even imagine - everything from MRI technology to cell phones (have you ever seen the first Star Trek series?) to - well, there is an entire NASA Spinoff website that explains this.

Think about this.  We won the space race, right?  And now -we won't have a way to get into space on our own, for now.  We will have to depend on....

The Russians.

Now, that's irony.

We can ask  "so who cares?  Why is it important to keep exploring space?  (No, the answer isn't going to be to fight the space aliens traveling right now to our planet to conquer us....but who knows, maybe they are.)  No, the answer is not about being able to resist our future space overlords.  (Or...just think of this nightmarish thought - terrorists launch a satellite....)

It has a lot to do with the human spirit.  Humans are explorers.  The drive is built into us.  In every generation are born people without fear (or maybe, people without common sense).  The wider our horizons, the wider our thinking.  Our acceptance of new ideas, our flexibility, our ability to roll with change, depends on this. 

Will we lose our spirit?  If we do, our country is lost.

I fear this has already happened to our country, and we must fight it.

I rarely write serious blog posts, but this is one of them.

Be it by government, or be it by private industry, we can't give up space.

After posting this, I read an awesome post on the subject.  I am linking to it, so you can read it too.

What are your memories, if any, of the space program?