Remembering Bill Coperthwaite

When my wife and I got married my friend, John Saltmarsh, gave us two hand carved wooden spoons and a book called “The Handmade Life.” The spoons were carved by the book’s author, Bill Coperthwaite.

Ten years later, as 2013 was coming to a close, I found out from John that Bill had died in a car accident not far from his home in Maine.

Bill’s book occupies a special place in my heart, and on my bookshelf. I keep it in a small pile of books in our living room, books that I go back to often for advice, for grounding, and for inspiration. Bill was a pioneer in popular education and homesteading, living close to the land and thinking always about how to build more resilient and connected communities. Continue reading

A Reminder of Falling

My son pumped his legs against the hard plastic pedals, willing away the late afternoon heat, as he aimed his bike towards the puddle in front of him. He rocked back and forth as the pedals turned, thinking only about how fast he could go. And then, his wheels cut into the water with a hiss that seemed to split the puddle in half, like Moses with training wheels. He laughed as he looked back at the wet tire tracks drawing out behind him.  Continue reading

Google Maps, Sense of Place and the Algorithms of Our Heart

At their big developer conference this week Google introduced a slew of new features for Google Maps, but one caught my eye more than any other. Google suggested that the future of maps would be personalized. On their blog they asked, “What if we told you that during your lifetime, Google could create millions of custom maps…each one just for you?” They expand on the idea:

“In the past, such a notion would have been unbelievable: a map was just a map, and you got the same one for New York City, whether you were searching for the Empire State Building or the coffee shop down the street. What if, instead, you had a map that’s unique to you, always adapting to the task you want to perform right this minute?”

Image via Google

This led Emily Badger at Atlantic Cities to wonder if Google’s new maps might take the “filer bubble” experience into the physical world, “We may never know what we are not seeing.” While, I share Badger’s concern, I also think that we are always already rewriting the maps we use to navigate the swiftly changing world around us. The question we should ask is do we trust the maps made by Google’s algorithm more or less than we trust those made by our hearts and minds.

In the fall of 2006 Rebecca Solnit  published an essay called “Maps for the Year Ahead” in Orion Magazine. The piece offers a number of striking observations about space, place, and land in the wake of tragedy. Looking at events like the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco and hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Solnit draws a connection between urban sprawl and the power of natural disasters to make us feel disoriented and, in a very real sense, ungrounded.

This reminded me of a friend of mine who led rafting trips. He once told me that each year, and after big rain storms, river guides have to re-learn the river because the river bed changes so dramatically. Solnit’s discussion of displacement and mapping made me wonder how often we have to re-learn our landscape and how quickly it can change. Continue reading

Three Ideas: Testing Legislation, Newsroom Archives, and Technology Playgrounds

I took advantage of my holiday time off to catch up on my Instapaper read later list. As I read I try to tweet out the best articles, or key ideas I’m grappling with, but some pieces demand more than a tweet (but less than a full blog post). Here are three articles whose ideas I’m still mulling over and that I think deserve more attention.

Washington Post – Stop guessing whether a bill will work. Instead, test it.
Political reporter Dylan Matthews proposes a federal agency dedicated to running experiments on public policy proposals before legislation is adopted. The idea here is to test what will and won’t work in the real world and bring that research to bear on political debates. While I like Matthews’ idea of testing legislation, I also wonder how this might be built into solutions journalism that would be dedicated to helping us address wiked problems. This idea also seems like a powerful way to counteract the trend of hindsight journalism. It may not be an either/or, I’d like to see both governments and news organizations taking up some of these ideas and challenges and adopting a model of creating legislation that looks a bit more like agile development and participatory community planning.

Reporters’ Lab – Creating a newsroom ‘answer machine’
I’ve long been deeply interested in how news organizations can better leverage their archives to help serve the public, add context to current events, and drive new traffic to their site. Tyler Dukes’ proposal for using news organizations’ archives to help create a newsroom “answer machine” is superb, while not without its challenges. He focuses on how this type of project could help improve reporting but I can see wonderful applications of this kind of app in politics and education as well. For another great project focused on better using media archives be sure to check out the recently launched Pop Up Radio Archive.

Designing for Diversity – Designing Creative Technology Playgrounds for Families
I have been thinking about the role of play in my own work as well as in the lives of my two sons. My life has been animated by a healthy tension between my fascination with technology and my affinity for wilderness and the outdoors. Where these two passions intersect is in the realm of play and exploration. Whether it was dismantling kitchen appliances and putting them back together or building wilderness shelters and treehouses, I loved to make things and engage actively in the world – both natural and manmade. I want to nurture that same passion in my sons, regardless of what their interests are – music or machines, art or airplanes, trees or technology – I hope they’ll approach it all with playfulness and a sense of wonder. This post, a summary of a discussion at MozFest in London, touches on some of those themes.

A Christmas Carol for a Warming Planet

My uncle Chris Atkins is a great satirist who posted this alternative version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” on Facebook last year. It seems just as relevant today – maybe more so…

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like April
(sung to the tune “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”)

It’s beginning to look a lot like April
I may come unglued
There are sandals on shoppers’ feet
No one has used the heat
And everybody’s in a cranky mood
It’s beginning to look a lot like April
Steamy sweaty stores
But the ugliest sight to see
Is the soaring mercury
Feels like Bangalore.
A pair of shorts and a tee shirt and new Birkenstocks
Is the wish of Barney and Ben
Look at the forecast on weather dot com
Buy some skorts for Janice and Jen
Did Fox just say there’s no such thing as climate change again?

It’s beginning to look a lot like April
Everywhere you go
There’s a plant in the living room
That looks like it’s going to bloom
I sure would like to see a little snow
It’s beginning to look a lot like April
Fifty-five’s the low
Glad the kiddies are out of school
We’ll do Christmas by the pool
And we’ll dream of snow

Networks Versus Institutions: Lessons from Occupy Sandy and the Red Cross

In the title of her post at Slate Katherine Goldstein asks “Is Occupy Wall Street Outperforming the Red Cross in Hurricane Relief?” It’s a provocative question, but the article doesn’t really go very far in answering it. While it provides a glimpse of the tremendous effort and coordination behind Occupy Sandy, it doesn’t really provide any evidence with which to compare Occupy’s effort to the Red Cross’s work.

I’m not on the ground in New York so I’m in no position to assess the tactics or impact of either group, and as Andrew Katz argued on Twitter, it may be “Unfair to pit Red Cross against Occupy in a ‘who’s helping more’ debate. Similar priorities, diff abilities.” However, I’ve watched as many of my friends have headed out to help with Occupy Sandy and connected to other self-organized grassroots relief efforts around the city. What Goldstein’s post raises, and what I have witnessed online, is how fundamentally the way we respond to disasters is changing. Continue reading

Eating Our Bombs, Revisited

This is a revised version of a post I wrote a few years ago. 

Old Weapons, New Tools

A few years ago I read a brief essay by Karen Coates about Laotian craftsmen who are literally turning modern day swords into plowshares. They are recovering the remainders of the long American bombing campaign in their country and repurposing them to work their fields.

“An American bomb detonates on Laotian soil; 30 years later, a villager exhumes the pieces. He delivers them to a scrap-metal yard. There they sit in a heap until one day, a Hmong man named Lee Moua plunks down a little money for a mangled chunk of that bomb,” writes Coates. “He takes the metal to his homespun blacksmith shop in a parched backyard among pineapples and sugarcane. He fires a bed of coals, working beneath a rusty roof on a bamboo frame. His bellows are made from a parachute flare canister – more war scrap; his anvil, an artillery shell driven into a stump. Lee Moua heats and pounds his bomb fragment into shape, toiling most of a sweltering afternoon. And when he’s done, we have a garden hoe… he hands us the silvery object, straight from a blistering fire. Its blade is wicked-sharp, capable of practical things. The transformation has taken about three hours — from a sorry piece of bomb scrap to a useful new tool.”

Coates reports in her piece that “Between 1964 and 1973, the United States pummeled Laos with bombs: 4 billion pounds of bombs, 580,000 sorties, one raid every eight minutes for nine years.” She continues, “And 30 years on, people still die every week. Up to 30 percent of those bombs never detonated, and they remain embedded in Laotian soil. Every week, farmers die while plowing their fields. Women die while tending their yards. Children die while playing with little objects they pluck from the ground…”

This story still, even after so many readings, leaves me breathless and haunted. The story comes from Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War. Visit Coates’ website (http://redcoates.net) to read more and see the stunning pictures of the land and people in Cambodia today. Continue reading

On The Loss of a River

When I was growing up I spent a lot of time in the Adirondack Park. I went to college just north of the “blue line” (as the border of the park is commonly known) and spent a year after college serving with AmeriCorps and the Student Conservation Association (SCA) in the Adirondacks. During that year I worked on a number of week-long conservation projects in the high peaks area of the park outside Lake Placid, NY.

I started many of those trips in Keene Valley, hiking in on a trail that runs parallel to Johns Brook. One week we hiked in and demolished an old lean-to at “Slant Rock” that had grown unsafe. We blazed a new trail and built a new shelter from scratch. I spent another week repairing the Johns Brook interior ranger station, a backcountry base station for park rangers.

Johns Brook wound its way through my summer that year, and has since wound its way through my memory. I listened to it as I slept, swam in it, drank from it, scrambled down its banks. A year after working on that project at the ranger’s cabin, one of my friends who I had worked alongside, died suddenly. The weekend of his funeral I hiked back up there and sat on a rock in the middle of Johns Brook feeling the mighty stream roll over me. This past summer marked ten years since that summer, and I returned to Keene Valley with my wife and son, and we spent long afternoons swimming in Johns Brook and the neighboring Ausable River.

And so, when I received the note below from a longtime family friend who lives in Keene Valley, I was struck by how quickly the landscape of our memories can change, and how profoundly I could feel the loss of a river. Read on to see what I mean.

Continue reading

A Window and a Screen: Nature Through a Child’s Eyes

Our back yard slopes down and away from the house. It is a former river bed, and has been carved gently over time. Decades ago, the town of Easthampton rerouted the river, bending it dramatically away from our property. What remains behind my house is a little stream, a minor tributary, a ribbon of still water winding through a young forest and a think tangle of wetlands.

From our kitchen window, which faces southwest, we have seen wild turkeys wading through three feet of snow, young deer with their white spots shining in the morning light and rabbits that bolt almost as soon as you set eyes on them. We’ve had a mother bear and cubs walk alongside our house and down through the yard, and at night we often hear coyotes, the young cubs’ howls sound like screams. Squirrels leave husks from our walnut tree around the yard and moles twist long tunnels beneath the grass. Birds fill the morning thick with song. Sparrows, bluejays, and crows tumble through the air, chasing each other from branch to branch, while herons sail with slow grace through the trees and huge hawks circle above watching it all.

My wife and I lift our young son up onto the kitchen counter, where he kneels with his hands pressed against the window, looking out across our wild backyard. Sometimes he responds with bright glee bubbling up, pointing and babbling with excitement. Other times he just stares in quiet awe, studying the animals as they move across our yard and disappear into the shadowy forest. Holding him there, my hands on his knees, his small back pressed up against my chest, I feel his heart beat and his deep breaths expand and contract. Through his eyes I see the world anew and share in the wonder of those moments. Continue reading

At the Intersection of Science, Language and Spying

I’ve had these three articles tucked away in my notebook for awhile now, hoping to construct a fairly long piece on the intersection of science and language and about the ways that our speech shapes the world around us. However, I’m fairly certain that I won’t have the time I need in the near term, so instead I have pulled out a few key quotes and offer them to you below.

In this case I’ll have to let juxtaposition stand in for analysis. If something in the intersection of these three pieces resonates for you, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Continue reading

A Ribbon of Green: High Line Park in NYC

Ever since first hearing about the New York City’s newest park, the High Line, I have been transfixed by it, pouring over photos, reading articles, studying the plans. At first I thought it was the juxtaposition of this long ribbon of green amongst the skyscrapers that sparked my imagination, but it’s more than that. It intersects every one of my key interests – urban planning, community organizing, conservation, parks, and media. Continue reading

On American Land and Politics

I appreciated this quote, on the expansiveness of our land and our democracy, from an old NYT blog post

The immensity often gets lost in the superlatives stirred up by the most outrageously scenic sites. But in the aggregate, this is what every citizen owns: 530 million acres, of which 193 million are run by the Forest Service, 253 million by the Bureau of Land Management and 84 million by the National Park Service. The public land endowment is more than three times the size of France.

“Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” That was the encomium for the parks by Wallace Stegner, the Best Westerner. It’s worth noting, at a time when a loud fringe of political life fits the Stegner description of us at our worst, how this miracle of public land came to be.

Creating Productive Space: Storytelling and Overcoming Polarization

“Our narratives transcend fact, for they are formed from the delicious emotional nuances of sensation: sound, smell, moods, sensuality, taste, color, shadow, texture, rhythm, cadence, tears, laughter, warmth, and coolness all experienced here, at a place on this earth.”  — Robert Archibald

The Inadequacy of Facts

Ethan Zuckerman has a fantastic post up this week mulling over how we might address and overcome our increasingly polarized politics and culture. The post hinges on the inability of facts to bridge and mend the polarization that is increasingly driving an insurmountable wedge into the most important debates of our time.

In end, he says “the path that leads from polarization towards common ground is rooted in understanding values as well as facts.” Building on that idea he zeros in on Bill Moyers’ recent interview with David Simon (a former journalist and creator of HBO’s The Wire). In the interview Moyers asks Simon “Can fiction tell us something about inequality that journalism can’t?” and Simon replies, “[As a journalist] I would think, ‘Man, it’s just such an uphill struggle to do this with facts.’ When you tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats.”

“Is America on the wrong track? Are things getting better or worse? Has our political culture become so toxic that compromise is no longer possible?” asks Zuckerman. “These aren’t questions we can answer through marshaling collections of facts. They’re questions that force us to tell stories about our values, to listen to the stories our fellow citizens are telling, and to seek the elusive common ground that allows us to have a functional society.” Be sure to read his post in its entirety – it is far richer than I can summarize here.

How Do Stories Work?

From 2004 to 2007 I studied the question of how storytelling can help communities catalyze change. One of the people whose work was vital to this project was Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities. Peter has spent the last decade arguing that land conservationists, environmentalists, and activists across a range of issues need become better storytellers and better listeners. Continue reading

Public Lands and Public Media

Tonight is the premier of the new Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. I have had the good fortune to see a few sneak previews of the six part series, and am eager to see the rest.

The first preview of the series I saw was a rough cut of the introductory monologue, which featured stunning videography from just a few of the 391 national parks and laid out the guiding idea behind the film. I was struck at how the Duncan tied the history of the national parks to our political, social, and individual identities as Americans.

This excerpt from the introduction on their website gets at some of these ideas, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea is the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone.” For Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns this idea is fundamental to our democratic spirit, and understanding the role of the parks in the history of America is key to understanding ourselves. Continue reading

The Narrative of Our Nation

The same year that I published my first book of poetry, I learned to build trails. While building a bridge out of red maple and black ash, I thought about building a story. Moving stones to build a staircase, is not so different from moving words to construct an essay. The first time I sharpened my own ax I thought about sharpening pencils. At night, the lake where I was living looked like ink.

As I began my year of service with the Student Conservation Association, my goal was to strike a balance between my commitments to writing, community, and the environment. Sitting around the big table in our communal dining room the twenty people I would be spending the next year with introduced themselves.

Name. Hometown. Major. One other fact about yourself.

One after the other these recent college graduates described themselves in disciplines: Biology, Ecology, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, Geography, Geology, Natural Resource Management, Environmental Law, Landscape Architecture, Chemistry, Forestry… and then there was me.

Everyone was surprised to find an English major in their midst. Continue reading