Another year in the forest (2018)

Busiest year so far in my forests.  I am getting to do lots more of the things I want to do and the work is starting to be the way I hoped it would be.  I spend a lot of time out standing in my fields and I keep on thinking of the Aldo Leopold essay “Axe in Hand,” about how we affect the landscape and thereby change the future – do, reflect on what you have done & change what you do based on what you learn.  Good advice on the land and for life.  I read that essay decades ago, but really took it to heart a couple years ago when I got to lead a discussion group at Aldo Leopold Center.  Leopold said that it was not enough to read about land ethics, but rather to live it and to learn from interactions with the land. You and your land metaphorically cooperate in writing a land ethic.  My land has been teaching me a lot. I only wish I could express it more directly. I don’t have the words.  I wish I could phrase it for even myself.  The best I can do is tell about the year in the forest.  Maybe in the telling, it will better be understood.

A big difference about acting in nature versus acting in among our fellow humans is that nature does not accept excuses.  You cannot complain or demand special treatment.  Nature cuts you no slack. I identify as a robust young man.  Nature constantly reminds me that it does not care what I think.  When I go out to plant trees or cut vines, I cannot say I should be able to do more than I can do.

Ecology is all about – only about – relationships

Since I am talking here about my interaction with my forests, I include thinking that I might do far away from my land.  You can reflect about the land without having your boots on it. My year in the forest started far away from Virginia.  Chrissy & I visited ancient settlements in New Mexico where we learned more about how the ancestral Pueblo had managed fire in the ponderosa pine and juniper forests in those montane forests.  I have been studying the Ancestral Pueblo for a while.  I want to know more about them because they are intrinsically interesting, but I also want to know more about how they lived sustainably on fire-prone landscapes for more than 500 years. I thought about what we could learn from their experience in general and how I could specifically apply some of their insights to my land in Virginia. The environments are different but some of the principles are the same.  Ponderosa pine ecosystem have a fire regime analogous to longleaf pine.

Using tree rings, scientists have mapped the changing climate and conditions in the Southwest with precision going back more than 400 years and make decent estimates farther back.

The tree rings tell a story of wet and dry years and fires that go with them.  Not surprisingly, fires are more common in dry years, but fire scars indicate that centuries ago fires were frequent but not very hot. The record of the area around the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico experienced frequent low-intensity burns until around 1680. After that, fires become less frequent but hotter. This fire regime persists until just before 1900, when fires are almost gone, until the serious upsurge a few decades ago. What happened? Spanish and then American settlers moved in and changed the fire regimes.

References – Fires Bigger Than Ever

 Learning from Native American fire practices

The Pueblo had a yearly routine that served to periodically burn the landscape in patches and to remove much of the denser flammable material.  In the summer, they spread out over the landscape to hunt and cultivate small food patches.  Fires escaped from campfires and sometimes they set fires to improve hunting.

I could not learn if they specifically did this, but I learned that other native groups set fires in the fall when they left the forest. These fires burned along the ground until extinguished by the snows of winter.  In the winter, the Pueblo retired to their centralized settlements. A big part of what we would today call “fuel reduction” in the forest came from the use of firewood for cooking and heating. It takes a lot of wood to keep warm in the winter. None of that wood consumed in that way remained in the forest to stoke hot and destructive forest fires.  I think this wood consumption may be one of the missing links in how we manage for fire today.  Even if we do periodic burning, if we do so w/o removing some of the dense fuel, the fire will persist too long and kill the trees.  We can use this principle by removing some timber from the lands – another ecological argument for sustainable harvests.

References – A study of history at Bandelier National Monument

Exchanging lessons from ponderosa to longleaf and back again

I loved the ponderosa pine ecology even before I encountered it physically.  I knew it from my studies.  It is similar in its fire regime to southern pine and longleaf and the ponderosa pine ecology was a kind of inspiration for my land management this year. I know that we cannot and should not try to reproduce one ecology on a different one, but the general lessons were the same for both.  Pine trees should be widely spaced.  The forest is more than the trees and so we should look to the total ecology, and fire was the arbiter, even if in thinning I was doing my part to set up the future diversity.  Unlike Aldo Leopold, I did not actually have an axe in my own hand, but I was going to make the management work.

A side note on ponderosa pine – it is a simply wonderful ecology, beautiful to look at, productive for wildlife and it even smells good.  Ponderosa pine have a kind of vanilla-pine smell.  If you were blindfolded and dropping in a ponderosa pine forest, you might be able to tell where you were standing just by the smell.  Ponderosa are a common montane species on Sky Islands.

Don’t mimic nature; find & use nature’s principles

My goal is not to restore pre-settlement ecology. Restoration is not possible and probably not desirable. So much has changed and nature is never settled. Embrace the impermanence.   A diverse ecosystem that respects and uses natural principles but does not merely mimic nature, that is what I want on my land and what I hope to learn from my land. When talking to people generally, I often use words like “restore.” People like the idea of restoration. I do too, but I know restoration is not an option. We have too many changes in Virginia, too many invasive plants and too much human interaction ever to restore what was once here. Beyond that, there would be no way to know what you should restore. Even with precise (and impossible to obtain) information about what was here and how everything was connected, in what year was everything exactly the way it should be?

The answer is never. Nature is never finished. Virginia of 1608 is different from but not better than the Virginia of 2018 or how it was during the last ice age or when dinosaurs roamed Our beloved longleaf pine ecosystem began its development on coastal plain exposed by much lower sea levels during the last ice age and “invaded” this land as its home range disappeared under the rising seas.

All we can do is move forward using the principles in an iterative way, trying something, learning something and then trying again with the profound understanding that this too is passing, and knowing that much you get from being in nature is being in nature.  It is the action and the reward.

As in Leopold’s formulation – do, reflect and then do again at a better level of understanding.  The landscape that greeted English settlers at Jamestown in 1607 was appropriate to the time.  What I want to restore is not that, but rather my task is to try to determine what is appropriate today and for the next generation, since the trees will live in a changed future landscape.  We give the native plants and relationships the benefit of the doubt.  They are presumed most appropriate until more information is available.  Some relationships have changed, however, well beyond out capacity to restore, so we try what will work today.  Native is not always better.  Who can say what it even means to be native these days.  If the environment is profoundly changed, what was native to that longitude and latitude may no longer have native virtue.

News from the various units


We thinned 45 acres on the Brodnax place in 2017. The trees are widely space, about 50 basal area, as opposed to the 80-100 BA normal for commercial pine forests in the Southeast.  The plan, in cooperation to NRCS, is to burn around 15 acres every year – a patch burn strategy to create a mosaic habitat that scientists tell us was common in pre-settlement Virginia.  This allows wildlife to move out of the way of the fire while it is burning and then take advantage of the difference between the burned and unburned forest when the fire is gone.

We burned in May – a patch burn of around fifteen acres. The fire got a little hot in a few places and killed about two dozen trees.  I mourned their loss, but we can move on.  I decided to leave the dead trees standing to provide snags for wildlife.


Planting the longleaf plugs

I planted longleaf pine under those dead trees.  It should be sunny enough for the longleaf to thrive and I hope that the longleaf roots will have an easier time if they can follow the softer underground paths as the dead loblolly roots decay. This method it follows the natural principle under which longleaf would seed in after a fire. We planted in December. Longleaf should be planted in winter. Longleaf in a natural system start to grow in winter.  Taking advantage of winter rains and generally wetter soil, they get a little head start over other vegetation after a fire, and they need it.  Loblolly immediately start growing up, growing above the competition.  Longleaf spend their first couple years sending down deep roots, growing down first.  This gives them an advantage later in adapting to drought or fire, but they can lose the race toward the sun before they get a chance to grow up.  One of my tasks over the next years will be to “cheat” to help the longleaf.

Larry Walker and the McAden Hunt Club planted pollinator habitat along the roads.  These should reseed themselves next season and some of the seeds will spread into the open forest, including into the areas with the killed pines.  Nature is resilient, and we can help it being even more so.


Low survival rates from the 2016 planting

Survival rates for the 2016 longleaf on Brodnax were disappointing.  I checked them out in December and found them very thin on the ground.  I speculate that they were planted too late in season.  They were not in the ground until late March and it didn’t rain much in the weeks after.  Since I did not have the time or muscle to plant several thousand trees, I decided to do the easy thing.  I planted around 500 longleaf near the roads and paths.  Natural loblolly and some shortleaf will fill in the blank areas.  Loblolly pines are prolific seed producers.  In a natural system, they seed into disturbed areas and quickly establish a pine forests as an early step in natural succession. This is what I have and I will end up with a mixed pine forests, but with rather more longleaf (I hope) than anything else. I got the new longleaf from Bodenhamer in North Carolina and started planting some that same day. So, they were fresh. It was the right season and a rainy day, so they should survive well. I figure that if I am going to plant a limited number of trees, I may as well plant where it is easiest to do and easiest to tend later.  I will be able to walk on the paths to spray or just look in on them.  Beyond that, the paths will be sunnier.

There is an implied criticism when people say, “you are always looking for the easy way to do things.”  Who the heck looks for the hard way.  Reminds me of the odd saying that “you always find your keys in the last place you look.”  Well … who keeps on looking after they have found them? I took the easy way with my pines and the success will be better for it.  At least I think so.

Planting was both hard and rewarding. I have enjoyed being out in the fields, but my progress is slow. I am planting one every five steps.  I am planting plugs and I have a plug planter.  It is like one of those bulb planters on a stick. It pulls out a plug just a little bigger than the plug we plant. The plugs remind me of carrots. I have been punching the hole and them rotating the planter so that it creates a circle of bare ground. I hope the works.  Will see next year.

Contemporary accounts of the burning are included here & here.

Diamond Grove/Chrissy’s Pond

I had planned to thin this unit in 2019, but I think now I will delay until 2020.   The trees at that time will be 17-years-old.  My current plan is to thin to 50 basal area. I think that I am going to make that my signature on my land.  I will clear cut an area of about five acres near Genito Creek.  It is very we there. The pine trees are not growing as well as elsewhere on the land.  I think I will replant with bald cypress, better adapted to that micro-environment.  If we do experience global warming, these trees will be well-adapted.  Bald cypress occurs naturally in Virginia. There are lots of them in the southeast part of the state and nearer to my land along the Nottoway River, maybe 50 miles away, so I think I will call them native.

The McAden Dairy Hunt Club planted pollinator habitat & warm season grasses on the food plots this year. Seeds were expensive, but we got an NRCS grant to help defray the cost. I believe these will become self-sustaining. They will be well-established by 2020 and can spread into the sunny woods when we do the thinning.

There has not been much work to do on this unit, although I have found work to do. I mostly pull vines and try to thin out the invading hardwoods. I am not sure how much good this does, but it gives me a chance to get into the woods with something to do.

The Diamond Grove place is still my favorite.  It is a little more diverse than the others in terms of topography, streams and steam management zones, but I think I like it best because it was my first piece of land and I have watched the trees grow for going on thirteen years now.

BTW – there is no pond on the Chrissy’s Pond place. I had considered making one, so the name is aspirational.  I call it Diamond Grove when describing it to others, since nobody would know what I was talking about if I called it Chrissy’s Pond.


This was the unit with the most activity in 2018. We thinned to 50 basal area and made clearings of ¼ acre in every acre. The plan is to plant longleaf in the clearings and under some of the thin loblolly. This year I got around 2800 longleaf from Bodenhamer and we did a planting day.  The kids did the planting and managed to get around 1700 in the ground.  I plan to go down in the next few weeks and get the rest in the ground.  I am glad that the kids are involved. I hope this will strengthen their ties and love of the land.  Mariza wrote a nice blog post about her experience.  I think they had a good time and bonded a little more with the land.  I want them to experience some of the joy I feel in the forests. In some ways, their experience will be even richer, since they will have more time to see the changes and developments.

It is a little selfish, but I hope that when they are walking on the land decades hence that they will sometimes remember me, “and all my grave will warmer, sweeter be.”

Department of Forestry was going to burn the cutovers, making it easier to plant and manage, but it has been way too wet this year.  They did make some planting grooves that knocked down the brush and made it easier for the kids.  We will need to burn every 2-4 years going forward.  I think we will do it closer to the 4 years interval.  That seems sufficient to keep the hardwoods and loblolly out of the longleaf and it burns out the litter enough.  Longleaf are fire adapted, but the fire does not leave all of them unharmed. Anyway, I will observe and try to learn

Forestry and looking for meaning in life

I cannot remember a time when I did not feel balanced & connected while being in forests. I consider myself a resilient person. I can bounce back from most setbacks, but only because I find peace in grove of trees or a patch of prairie.  W/o this refuge, I do not think I would last very long.

But it is not getting away from civilization and the city that matters.  It is getting to, getting to a place where I feel connected. Getting to a place where I can look into the book of life, even if I cannot understand the writing. I take comfort in knowing that so much is unknowable but still feeling a part of it. Interaction with my land over the course of years or decades takes this to a higher level. I enjoy and appreciate the “untouched” land, untracked wilderness, and in some places I enthusiastically support the idea embodied in the signs the says, “Leave only footprints and take only pictures.”  But not always.

Humans of nature and wandering in nature

I do not hold with the idea that humans and nature are separate or should be kept apart. There are places humans should touch and places that I personally should touch and change.

I have been wandering forests my entire adult life, most of my adolescence and some of my childhood. I learned to identify the trees, soil types, & topography, and doing that gives me great joy. I love forests, but my thinking about ecosystems has changed. I used to like to wander lonely as a cloud. I didn’t want to see the signs of human “damage,” and that is the word I used for any human activity in the forests.  Of course, I implicitly made exception for paths and markers.  In retrospect, I see that as a little hypocritical.

You cannot step twice into the same forest

These were feelings of a young man with more passion for the natural world than experience with it, and maybe I could indulge those passions because I knew I would get my wish. It was an abdication of responsibility.  Look what THEY have done to my natural world.  If they would just let nature decide, everything would go back into balance.

I am different now. To be fair to my young self, I was acting on information that has since been overtaken by events. Scientific understanding of ecology has changed.  Back in those old days I learned about the balance in nature, the climax conditions where all nature was inexorably headed absent the damage by human.  We now know more about nature’s ephemeral, even effervescence qualities, its impermanence and dynamism.  Each moment in the forest’s life (and our own) is unique to be appreciated for what it is. A small alteration may grow into a great change that everybody sees or maybe you won’t perceive it at all, but (paraphrasing Heraclitus) you cannot step twice into the same forest. That is what I love now. But more than that, I came to understand that I don’t really like wilderness in the sense of land without humans.

There was plenty of the human-free planet in the countless eons before man evolved and there will be plenty more after we are gone. Will “time” stop when nobody, no human, remains to count the minutes, hours and years? It might sound arrogant to say that humanity is the measure of nature, but it is even more arrogant and downright ignorant for any humans to say that they can understand nature in any non-human way. Raw nature is nasty, cold and incompressible. No human can respect nature in its natural state and it really doesn’t matter if we do or do not.  Nothing the human race can do will add or detract from nature in the big sense.

Far beyond our small ability to add or detract

If we managed what we arrogantly believe and self-indulgently fear (but couldn’t really do) – if we destroyed the entire surface of the Earth, would that make any difference to a nature that encompasses a universe and worlds without end, billions of years of time and billions of light-years of space? Is there anything any of us, or all of us collectively could do that will make a difference a billion years hence?

It would make a difference to humans in the here and now.  That is why we care.  We can add or detract from the human experience and interpretation of nature and this is where the meaning is to be found. I am happy to see signs of “good” human intervention and sometimes even the results of a bad intervention healed. More than a century ago, a great man-made catastrophe transformed Northern Wisconsin. The great Peshtigo fire burned everything from the middle of the state to Lake Michigan. You can still see the signs in the type of vegetation and soils. We now call it old growth, but it results directly from inadvertent “bad” human intervention. The people living now benefit from this tragedy.  Most of them are unaware.

You can start down the path w/o seeing the end

I have long since given up trying figure the meaning OF life.  I leave such speculation to the guys with the 50-pound brains, observing that if any of them have figured it out that they have not informed the rest of us.  I have faith that meaning exists.  I am sure of that, but it is not within human remit to understand this intellectually.  We just are not up to the task. But we are not without options.

Meaning IN life – I think finding or at least seeking meaning in life is in our reach, and I believe I have found the path, even if I cannot see the ultimate destination. For me meaning in life comes from my connection with nature.  I don’t know what part I play in the great scheme, but I know I am in the right place.

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Leopold Landscapes

Aldo Leopold is a kind of patron saint for me. I was introduced to his writing when I was in 12th grade. Also important, I grew up near and in Leopold landscapes.

Aldo Leopold got so much right. But in revering Leopold, we are honoring so much more than one man. His genius was to combine his own ideas with those of others and with natural trends. He understood that land ethic is written on the land, by a combination of human choices and natural principle. All of those who work on the land write their own sentences or chapters in combination with the nature on their land. It is a beautiful process, edifying to humanity.

The linked article is about ecological restoration. Ecological restoration is not possible. We can use natural principles to regenerate.

From the article – “Ecological restoration, land health, resilience – they are all nouns and as such imply a definitive end-state. Rightly, one could assume we advocate for something both known and achievable. It’s neither. Ecologist Frank Egler said, “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, but more complex than we can think.” Worse than being accused of longing for the past is being perceived as fixated on a singular expectation that’s nebulous at best and unattainable at worst. This isn’t just academic mire, but it amounts to a fundamental breakdown in communication. How will we ever democratize our ideas among the billions?

“Ecology is all about – or really only about – relationships.”

We grow in relation to the land we work, with each interaction. The land provides the lessons, but reading them requires effort and it requires time.

From the article – “Sometimes recognizing what’s best for the land community is difficult. Our management planning revealed the obvious course correction wasn’t limited by our tools so much as ourselves. More often than we’d like to admit it, probably in more arenas than we’d like to admit, our personal sensibilities, insecurities, and aesthetics heavily influence our thinking. Certainly, not everything in nature is intended to be beautiful to us or to abide by our rationale. Ecologists, of all people, know the importance of dynamic systems in nature, and yet directing such dramatic change as a major timber harvest exposed a threshold of emotions.”

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My notes from “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict & Cooperation

My notes from “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict & Cooperation

I attended the above conference on November 28.  Below are notes.

Water is critical. It grows our food, generates our energy, and ensures our prosperity. To address the challenges that stand in the way of building healthy, prosperous, and peaceful communities, we must first tackle the challenge of water insecurity. As the Wilson Center celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Environmental Change and Security Program marks water’s central role in our work at a special event highlighting innovative approaches to water, health, and security.

A rapidly changing climate and shifting demographics means the future of water resource management may not look like the past:

    What is the new face of water conflicts?

    Where are the opportunities to secure access to water and create more resilient communities?

    How can we protect our oceans from pollution and conflict?

    What are governments doing to elevate the importance of water security?

Join us on November 28th as we take stock on the 1st year of the 1st U.S. Global Water Strategy; explore new research and practice on water, peace, and conflict; and highlight the centrality of water to global prosperity.



Lauren Risi, Project Director, Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center opened “Water @ Wilson: 50 Years of Water, Conflict, and Cooperation” to an overflow crowd.  Every seat in the main auditorium was taken and others watched the video stream in an overflow room.  She introduced Jane Harman, Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center, who emphasized the importance and complexity of water management, referencing experience in her home state of California.

James Peters, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting Global Water Coordinator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), U.S. Agency for International Development

Keynote speaker James Peters, Deputy Assistant Administrator and Acting Global Water Coordinator, Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment (E3), U.S. Agency for International Development talked about the problems we face today in water management but compared it to the situation fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, he pointed out, we didn’t even have data on water.  We have come a long way.

Clean water is an ideal entry point for development, since it not only provides concrete health benefits but also is an organizing principle.  Mr. Peters talked about South Korea. Fifty years ago, South Korea was as poor as poor countries of Africa when they decided to provide clean water to everybody.   Korea is now among the world’s rich countries.  Korea went from aid recipient to self-sufficient to itself an aid donor.  This is as it should be. The purpose of aid is not charity but rather to bring recipient countries up. Partnerships not charity makes everyone better off.

Mr. Peters also talked about the Global Water Strategy published last year and its four interconnected strategic objectives:

  • Increasing sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation  services, and  the adoption of key hygiene behaviors;
  • Encouraging the sound management and protection of freshwater resources;
  • Promoting cooperation on shared waters; and,
  • Strengthening water-sector governance, financing, and institutions.


Aaron Salzberg

Next up was Aaron Salzberg, from State.  He covered some of the same ground and gave some figures about how lack of access to clean water impedes development, saying that GDP of some countries could be cut by as much as 6% if water issues remain unaddressed.  Water issues also lead to tensions among states, but Salzberg pointed out that actual conflicts among nations based on water are not common.  This goes against speculations and fears of “water wars.”


John Matthews, Lead and Co-Founder, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation

John Matthews, Lead and Co-Founder, Alliance for Global Water Adaptation finished the keynotes.  Infrastructure, he said, is meant to last decades or even centuries. Unfortunately, they are often built with ephemeral political or short-term analysis in mind.  He mentioned the Kariba Dam that straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  It was already obsolete when it was completed in 1977, and since has gotten worse. It just is not designed for condition.  He compared this to the Dujiangyan water project in China that has been working since around 256 BC. The difference is that the Dujiangyan project took cultural and natural ecology into account and was robust to change.

You need not leave the USA to see problems of planning gone wrong.  A classic example is the Colorado River. Decisions about water allocation were made with data from only a few years and those years were usually wet.  This means that more than 100% of the usual flow of the Colorado was allocated.  The problem we face now is that the past may be less useful in predicting the future, given rapidly changing climate.

We also need to change how we plan large projects in general.  The paradigm of the past was engineering dominant and top-town.  Experts determined what to do and where to do it and then executed around that one thing.  Today we need to take into account many more stakeholders, as well as factors like demography, urbanization, climate change and change in general.  We build infrastructure today for a world of tomorrow that might be very different.  Beyond that, the infrastructure itself is likely to be a catalyst for change.  Consider again the Colorado River and how the Hoover Dam played an instrumental role in how the whole region developed.


I was reminded of the old saying that yesterday’s solution is today’s problem.  This argues for a more incremental decision-making strategy, rather than betting the farm on one throw of the dice.  Adjusting might be more useful than a perfect plan.

Mr. Matthews talked about Climate Risk Informed Decision Analysis (CRIDA) and the importance of nature-based solutions – green infrastructure.   We build infrastructure to last centuries.  It might be a good idea at least to try to think some ways ahead.

Raging Waters: The New Face of Water Conflicts

The program went right into the first panel featuring:  Syed Imran Ali, Fellow in Global Health & Humanitarianism, Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research, York University; Richard Matthew, Director, Blum Center for Poverty Alleviation, University of California, Irvine; Scott Moore, Senior Fellow, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, University of Pennsylvania; Janani Vivekananda, Senior Advisor, adelphi and Moderator: Cynthia Brady, Senior Conflict and Peacebuilding Advisor, Center for Resilience, U.S. Agency for International Development.

Scott Moore started off with some myths about water.  The good news is that some of the bad news, or at least the bad projections, is wrong.  There was a lot of concern that water would lead to international conflicts. It has not.  In fact, water scarcity has been more likely to lead to cooperation. The exception is at the subnational level, especially when water access is tied to identity politics, but even this is much less than was feared in the 1990s.

Next up was Richard Mathew (not to be confused with John Matthews above), who talked about how bigger and better data analysis was changing how we can deal with uncertainty.  Number crunching that used to take days (if it could be done at all) can now be completed in minutes.  The practical effect has been that more scenarios can be run and presented to decision makers.  (I am old enough to have done regression analysis by hand and recall that once you did one, you made it fit if at all possible, rather than try alternate scenarios.) It also permits the melding of local knowledge with information developed by experts. Another big advance is the capacity for visualization.  We can make maps accurate to a few feet featuring simulations.  For example. It is possible to show which streets even what part of a street will be flooded in particular scenarios.

These have been making a difference.  A picture is worth 1000 words. When people can see the situation, they can more easily be moved take appropriate action.  Mr. Mathew is convinced that this information is saving big money and avoiding lots of suffering, but it is hard to prove a negative.  A disaster avoided cannot as easily be counted as the damage of one suffered.

Syed Imran Ali followed. He also talked about the need to know more than immediately meets the eye and talked about a nice, dry field where authorities set up a refugee camp during the dry season.  They did not think to ask what the local name meant.  It meant “swamp” and when the rainy season came, that it what it became.  You have to look at the whole system over time.

Last up was Janani Vivekananda. She used the case of Lake Chad to illustrate the need to get the narrative right.  Lake Chad is a big lake in the Sahara Desert.  The narrative is that it is shrinking due to climate change and there are expensive plans to pipe water from the Congo River basin. But this narrative is wrong. Lake Chad is currently EXPANDING.  It will shrink again.  The natural behavior of the lake is to expands and contract with the rains.  The challenge is variability. People have adapted to it by varying their activities.  They fish in the rainy season and then farm was the lake retreats.  The exposed silt is excellent farmland.

A problem here is weak property rights. In many cases, the “records” of property are in the head of some old people, sometimes only one old person. Since all men are mortal, this record is mortal too.  The system could be very robust, but the property rights problem remains.  The local famers could use dykes, as the Dutch do to create polders, but this investment will not be made if property rights are so weak.

Oceans of Cooperation

A panel on the oceans came after lunch and featured: Rebecca Karnak, Senior Director, Global Public Policy, Dell; Roger Pulwarty, Senior Scientist, NOAA; Mike Sfraga, Director, Global Sustainability and Resilience Program and Polar Institute, Wilson Center; Deirdre Warner-Kramer, Acting Deputy Director, Office of Marine Conservation, U.S. Department of State and Moderator: Sherri Goodman, Senior Fellow, Wilson Center.

Mike Sfraga started off with his “Seven Cs” about the Artic Ocean.  He admitted that this was a gimmick but said that it got attention much better.  The Seven are climate, commodities, commerce, connectivity, communities, competition & cooperation.  Climate change is radically changing the Artic Ocean.  A new ocean has been created, with all that entails. So far, there has been decent cooperation among the parties adjacent to the Artic Ocean.  Most are friendly, but even the Russians are cooperating. It is one of the few areas where they cooperate about anything.  However, this might not last as the riches of the new sea become more apparent and available.

Mr. Sfraga lives in Alaska and he talked about his personal experience with global warming.  He has seen whole villages inundated by rising water (or sinking land) or impoverished by changing in animal migration patterns.  This will be messy.


Deirdre Warner-Kramer talked about fisheries. It is hard to regulate fishing, since the seas are big and the reach of authorities small.  However, fish need to be landed at a port somewhere and at the ports fish catch can be checked.  Among the leaders in regulating fishing are small island nations (They have reframed themselves at “large ocean nations.)  that have a lot of their national territory at sea. Maybe the best is Iceland.  Unfortunately, this cannot be easily scaled.

Roger Pulwarty gave a very lively and amusing presentation.  He said that the subject was serious, but we need not be. He talked about the need to plan iteratively as a way to adapt to an uncertain world. He quoted Ruth Bader Ginsberg who said that any change that is sustainable is incremental.  He also cautioned against letting yourself be rushed into bad decisions with the quip, “hurry, the lemmings are gaining on us.”


The Future of Water Peace

 It was worth it to stay for the last panel of the day, featuring: Ken Conca, Professor of International Affairs, American University; Melissa Ho, Vice President, Fresh Water, World Wildlife Fund; John Parker, Deputy Director, Sustainable Water Partnership (Tetra Tech), and Aaron Wolf, Professor of Geography, Oregon State University with Moderator: Geoff Dabelko, Senior Advisor, Environmental Change & Security Program, Wilson Center; Professor and Director of Environmental Studies, Ohio University

Ken Conca said that he could not predict the future but would speculate that the future will mean more water storage, more recycling of water and more thinking about flooding.  All these things are challenging for engineering and social standpoints. Storage, for example, means more reservoirs. Recycling runs into the “yuk factor,” since we are using sewage. We overclean our water now.  Of course, drinking water needs be drinking water clean, but there is no useful purpose to super-clean water used to flush toilets or water the grass.  There is a lot of resistance to using these.


Mr. Conca also talked about how making decisions needs to adapt. We need to get away from the idea that we have a fixed goal, an end state, but rather see projects as evolving and emerging. Flexibility is more important. For a long time, the economics of scale have been dominant.  We built big. Maybe flexibility is overtaking this, and it might be better to do smaller projects and learn.  It is a kind of portfolio theory and similar – to extend the financial analogy – to buying stocks over a long period to mitigate risk.  Similarly, we should not get too enamored with any one solution.  The great promises of the past have usually turned out to work only in limited space.  Lots of diversity trumps the big solution.

It is also better not to concentrate power. It is tempting to want to use big power to make big breakthrough, but this is more a triumph of imagination over intelligence.  Our messy system of consultation and overlapping authority produces more robust results in the long run. More ideas are proposed and vetted.


Melissa Ho gave case studies from Africa and from the Pantanal in South America.  The need is for landscape level solutions. She also advocated green infrastructure.  John Parker recounted the case study of the Mara River basin in Kenya and Tanzania.


Aaron Wolf was both encouraging and cautionary.  Like some others, he pointed out that the dire prediction of water wars did not come to pass.  He only half-joking said that we got into that big worry because the experts who had so-long fought the cold war just needed another big worry to replace the decaying Soviet threat.  In fact, hydro-cooperation has been a peace building exercise.  Scarcity is not a driver of conflict but can be a drive of cooperation.  What matters is resilience of institutions.  He pointed out the Israel “ran out of water” in 1968, but in the time since cooperation with Jordan on this issue has improved, despite tensions in other areas.


He talked about the need to communicate with different audiences.  Don’t forget that people love water.  River festivals are popular. People like to be near water.  And don’t forget the spiritual aspect of rivers, water and nature.   We post-enlightenment moderns do not much consider this a valid concern, but many others do.  In fact, many of us still do too.  Interesting.  I already ordered his book from Amazon.


Thank you


John Matel

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Seeking Meaning In Life

I am invited to address a Department of State Public Affairs Officer conference to provide insights from someone who had crossed the bar from active diplomat to retired Foreign Service Officer. Some people in that audience might be reading this. I don’t mind tipping you off to think of questions or counter arguments. I may not get to all the points and may introduce others. It has always been hard for me to stick to a script, even one I wrote myself.

Life in and After the Foreign Service

“I improve the intelligence of any group I join. I like to think this is because I am so smart, but I suspect it more likely that I am so obtuse that others need to explain things to me. In doing so they question assumptions and come up with new solutions.” This is what I wrote in the EER that got me promoted to MC. You wouldn’t think that kind of insouciance would be career enhancing, but then you never know.

I am here to talk about work-life balance. This implies that work and life are separate. But they are no more independent than your heart from the lungs while you are living and breathing. Making work meaningful is key to balanced life. As a retired FSO, I am also here to talk about life after the Foreign Service. It exists, and it is glorious, BTW. I will make brief comments – tell my story -and be ready to respond to your questions and comments.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

Lighten up. You know I am right, and I know it is much easier for me to say than for you to do. Career is important. Promotions have consequences. They are a judgement on us. I still recall the dread of promotion lists. My wife had a friend who got advance copies. She helpfully called my wife and told her when I was not on the list. We take promotions personally, but they are less about you than you think. I served twice on promotion panels. They were big ones: career ending or saving transition panels that promote FS-01 to FE-OC. Promotions are statistical. You don’t always get what you deserve. Good people tend to get promoted faster, but not always. And we all end up in about the same place anyway. The day after you retire is the day you are a former FSO. So, lighten up.

Every FSO needs TWO types of examples. The first one is obvious. We need to think of the best FSOs and try to be like them. I thought of guys like Tom Shannon & Brian Carlson. These are the best. We can be excellent but still not reach a Tom Shannon level, and this is demoralizing. So, we need a second sort of example – high-ranking FSOs who are – shall we say – less competent. I will not name names, but there are a few. The good example makes us reach farther; the other sort is solace when our reach exceeds our grasp. “If that guy can do it, I can too.” This is maybe not a logical or noble sentiment, but it can keep you going during the lean times.

We few, we happy few

We (now you) have the best jobs. We meet great people, learn languages, dive deeply into societies worldwide, explore myriad topics, and they pay us for this. We have remarkable access and opportunity for meaningful work. The FS let me pursue an encompassing passionate interest in learning about one country, its language, society and history, to make it an obsession, and then disengage to move to something completely different. FSOs enjoy an unusual blend of remarkable continuity and radical change. Some of us refer to posts as “incarnations,” because it sometimes seems like we are different people living different lives. On the other hand, we stay in the same career, in the same State Department, in a society of long-term colleagues, subject to the strong gravity of Foggy Bottom. This peculiar combination suited me just fine. It is a unique life. I am sure most of you feel similarly.

I got a lot of status and personal identity from being a Foreign Service Officer – a diplomat. And when I thought about leaving this simultaneously challenging and comfortable environment, about retiring, I was terrified that I would be lost if separated from the Foreign Service. No more incarnations in a system that dominated my life for more than three decades. What was I w/o that?

Becoming a “Gentleman of Leisure”

In each of my Foreign Service assignments I learned things that I could apply in the next. They were new beginnings, but I began with a head start, with more tools to use and more skill in using them. Of course, I could not choose the circumstances where I would deploy them. It is the paradox of skill. The better you get, the more consistent your skill, the bigger role luck plays in the outcomes. I was extraordinarily lucky as PAO in Brazil. Colleagues were so good and so many things went my way that I figured that was the best I could ever do. After that, was senior international advisor at Smithsonian and then I did think tanks and NGOs. I did all I could do, and it was time to go and do something else.

It was also important to me to go out on my own timetable. I didn’t want them to kick me out. That seems less important to me now. Always leave when they still want you to stay.  Don’t hang around like a fart in a phone booth.

I decided to become a Gentleman of Leisure, even wrote a job description. The Foreign Service gave me a lifetime of diverse experience, maybe many lifetimes, the incarnations I spoke of above. It also gave me a taste of variety. AND – this is important – the pension and the TSP can support the moderate lifestyle of a Gentleman of Leisure. I have an additional permutation of forest ownership.

My Gentleman of Leisure job makes me a sometime diplomat (WAE), forest owner & land manager, conservationist, and member of a couple boards of directors. I attend lectures and have leisure to read broadly. My life now is like my life in the Foreign Service, with the big difference in that I get to choose where, when and how I work, and I no longer live in dread of those promotion lists.

I have been pleasantly surprised at the easy transition from Foreign Service Officer to Gentleman of Leisure. I am very lucky to have a supportive wife, reasonably good health & a lifestyle within my means, but I think that a big reason for the smooth transition is that it was not so much a transition as a reordering, as I mentioned above, a new incarnation with more freedom.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Becoming a successful Gentleman of Leisure means that you proactively manage your life and learning, including research & reflection to decide what among many possible interests to follow and mustering self-discipline to pursue them, minimize those wasted days and wasted nights drinking beer and watching reruns on TV. I want to use my freedom to seek meaning in life. Not the meaning OF life. That is unknowable, but finding meaning in life is possible by thinking, doing, reflecting and doing again, each iteration coming closer to excellence, sort of like we should be doing in our diplomatic enterprises.

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Fires in California – Fire is NOT the Enemy

Let’s just get the California politics out of current partisan bickering. Let me be plain about this. If you are blaming Trump or blaming Jerry Brown or thinking of this in any current political way, you are ignorant. Cut it out. This issue is too important and too long lasting for dummies to get upset about and upset others with partisan politics. Sorry to be so blunt, well not sorry.

I was looking for some perspective, so I went to the work of one of America’s leading authorities on wildfire. I read some of his books before, but this time I picked up the one specifically on California, “California: A Fire Survey” linked below.

Let me highlight a few points.

This fire controversy has been going on for more than 150 years. It is not a Trump problem or a liberal-conservative issue. It is a discussion of what is right AND it is protean, in that science is being developed constantly and practices are informing and shaping realities on the ground. There are few things more complex than wildfire and the politics (not the current partisan ones) make it worse.

The controversy about prescribed fire is very old. Native Americans burned in patches. They had thousands of years of experience and practice living in an exceptionally fire-prone region. They evolved appropriate responses. Spanish and the Mexican colonization did not greatly impact fire regimes. Fires still burned regularly, sometimes still set by Native Americans and sometimes by ranchers. The population was not dense.

All this changed rapidly after the 1849 gold rush and rapid population growth. Californians debated fire. Some were on the side of what they called “light burning”, as the Indians had done. Others wanted to excluded fire. This was part of the original progressive wave that sought to rationalize everything and manage nature. In 1923, a commission formally anathematized the practice of light burning.

Let’s explain a little. You can identify at least three “fire cultures” in the USA. The SE has a tradition of burning that persists to this day. The Rockies manages fire over large areas and sometimes experiments with natural fire. California has been in the forefront of suppression. Fire there is put out and not started by humans. The idea is to protect assets, houses, infrastructure and timber.

The idea that goes with suppression is that fire is an enemy to be attacked and defeated. There exists a type of “fire-industrial complex.” It deploys fire fighters in military fashion and brings with it military style equipment, big machines, helicopters and airplanes. All these things make great and heroic pictures. There is also the wonderfully poignant quality of homeowners fighting flames and the profound sadness of loss of homes and lives.

The problem with this whole Hollywood style narrative is that it is often very much effort and heroism applied to a problem that might better be avoided against an enemy (fire) which need not be our enemy and may be an ally in land management.

Fire is unavoidable. It is not an enemy that can be defeated. It is not an enemy at all. It is a part of the natural order. If you think in ecological terms, fire is an apex predator. It orders much of the natural landscape and when it is taken away that landscape declines Unlike an animal predator, however, it cannot really be extirpated. There is no extinction. In fact, it grows bigger, angrier and more destructive when excluded and transforms from a cleaner of the landscape to a destroyer.

In the midst of these big fires, it is inappropriate to fix blame, but when they go out, we need to put in better fire regimes. We need to recognize fire’s power and know that we cannot defeat it but we can live with it and thrive in fire adapted landscapes. We can get more if we do not try to have it all.

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November Trip to State Department

Yesterday was miserable; today was glorious, brisk and brightly sunny. I rode my bike to State Department. Most of the ice and snow from yesterday was melted. Only on the bridges did it persist. I had to be a little careful with the slippery wet leaves, but these disadvantages were compensated by a strong tail wind, perfectly placed. The only time I had to head into the wind was coming down the bike trail parallel to Route 50 and that I welcomed. It is a steep downhill. With the strong headwind all I needed do to slow to a safer speed was sit up a little straighter and catch the wind.

I went down to State to see who I could see and what I could learn. I suppose you could call it networking if I was a little more organized about it. I did have a goal of talking to the folks at Canadian affairs office. I have lined up a “gig” (I don’t much like that word, but it is descriptive of how I work these days) helping with the Columbia River treaty negotiations.

This is the treaty between the USA and Canada that concerns the flow of the Columbia River. It is a wonderfully complex system that features woods & water, as well as stakeholders in American states, Canadian provinces and Native American nations.

My part of this work will be prosaic, but I think the subject is fascinating. I just love anything involving woods, water, mountains, fish, wildlife and dams and I hope to get a few trips to the region. Always liked Montana and some of the negotiations are supposed to take place in Vancouver, a place I have long wanted to visit.

My first picture is the slush covered bike bridge over Leesburg Pike. The bike path itself was almost completely free of ice, but on the bridges it persisted. Second picture is Gordon Biersch at Tysons. Chrissy and I went out there for supper and beers. I just neglected to get the usual beer drinking pictures, so on the way out I got the sign. Not as good, I know.

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Comments on Fire in the Forest

These are some of my thoughts related to the big fires in California.  They are keyed off the articles at the top.

Megafires More Frequent Because Of Climate Change And Forest Management

It is very distressing that President Trump has jumped in on one side of the wildfire issue and that many of his critics have felt it necessary to jump in on the other as a consequence, as if this was like a football game where you could cheer for one side.

Two or more things can be true at the same time. We do not have to choose sides on MOST things. This is not a game where somebody wins and another loses. Rather the only way for one side to win here is for them the other side to win too.

The linked article is good and has the right title. But even here, we have the competitive set up discussed. “California Gov. Jerry Brown …hit back …”

Many factors contribute to increase in the destructiveness of wildfires. There are three big ones – climate change, population growth in the wilderness-urban interface (WUI) and land management. Far from having to choose which one we need to address, we need to recognize that NONE of them can be addressed properly w/o addressing all three.

If you think climate change is the big issue, you better address land management, since it is the most effective way you can adapt to the coming changes. If you believe land management is the big issue, you better consider climate change, since decisions made today must be adapted for the situation decades from now in a changed environment. And no amount of good management can save houses from burning if we do not develop and build in “fire wise” ways. This is true no matter how the climate changes.

Trump is right. Jerry Brown is right. Lots of other people are right too, but nobody can understand the whole situation, and no solutions apply equally to every particular situation That is why we need to respect the myriad idea and let them create the synergy we need to do things that need to be done.

And we will never know the truth. We have to think, try, assess and think again in this never ending quest. And just stop with the fighting each other. We need all the ideas.

Fueling the Fire

Maybe this is working out okay. Trump’s tweet was unfortunate and I worried that it would set up land management for a fall. But the attention is bringing the complexity of land management to a wider audience. I do not believe it will long hold the public attention, but it may move the discussion.

The author of this article is one of the gurus of fire management. I read a couple of his books and treasure his insights.

There is no single answer to this problem, nor an answer that will be right for all time even for the same places. We need appreciate the nuance. Maybe Donald Trump, perhaps the lease nuanced of our presidents, has helped contribute to a better understanding.

There Are 200 California Inmates Fighting the Camp Fire. After Prison, They Likely Won’t Be Allowed to Become Firefighters

Part of my fire theme but also my deep belief in redemption. These guys are risking their life and health. They should feel the consequence of their crimes but at some time there should be redemption.

“… most of California’s inmate firefighters will not be able to work in the firefighting profession after they are released because of the state’s deliberately exclusionary licensing laws. Firefighters in California are required to be licensed as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), which requires taking classes and passing a few state-administered exams. No problem there, but state law allows licensing boards to block anyone with a criminal record from getting an EMT license.”

Give them a break. Wouldn’t it be better if guys getting out of prison could then be of service to their society while helping themselves.

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Happy Birthday, Ma

My mother was born on this day in 1923.


I never got to know my mother after I was an adult. She died when I was seventeen. So my memories are seen through the eyes of a child or at best a teenager. The one thing that I remember very clearly was that I was always sure that she loved me. Everything else is less important after that and I know that she shaped a lot of my character.

Our house was the center of family activity while my mother was there. She had three sisters (Mabel, Florence & Lorraine) and two brothers (Harold & Hermann) and we had much of the extended family, minus Harold, who I don’t remember ever meeting. The family didn’t get along with his wife, Sophie. I don’t know why. All the other aunts and cousins would come over to play cards. Usually the cousin would come too, so while I had only one sister, I feel like I had lots of siblings. I really don’t know what card games they played. I just recall the constant chatter of a kind of mixed German-English. “Wat’s spielt is spielt” and “now who’s the high hund?”


As I wrote above, I didn’t get to know my mother as much as I would have liked to and I am astonished at how much I don’t remember or maybe never knew. Kids are rarely interested in their parents’ life stories until they get older, maybe because they just cannot believe their parents were ever young enough to have anything interesting to say. Besides, kids in my generation spent most of their time outside and away from the house. Parents and children have much more intense relationships these days, if for no other reason than that they are together when parents drive the kids everywhere and arrange various teams, trainings and activities. We didn’t have a car and we didn’t belong to any organized activities. I spent most of my days hanging around outside with my friends who lived nearby and I didn’t ask much.

I know she was born Virginia Johanna Haase (Mariza has her middle name). Her father was Emil and her mother was Anna (Grosskreutz). She grew up on the South Side of Milwaukee and married my father after the war, as they always called World War II. Of her childhood, I know little. Her father was an engineer who remained employed throughout the Great Depression, evidently a rare achievement. My father’s family was less fortunate.

Virginia was an unenthusiastic student in HS and dropped out of Bay View HS (same place I later went) in the tenth grade, but she always encouraged education for my sister and me. She worked at Allen Bradley during WWII but not long enough to get Social Security benefits. After she married my father, she no longer did any paying work, besides occasionally free-lance catering with her sisters. My mother made really good German potato salad, which was always in demand at family gatherings.

Virginia Haase was phenomenally good-natured and I remember her always cheerful. My father told me that he was lucky to get my mother to marry him, since she was extremely popular because of her open personality. She later became a woman of substance, as you can see in the bottom picture. My father was fond of big women, so I guess they had a good thing going.

My father enjoyed beer every day, but Ma drank only a little and only once a year at Christmas. She had one bottle of Gordon’s Gin in the downstairs refrigerator. She had a drink at Christmas and that bottle was down there as long as I remember, only gradually emptying. It was still half full when she died.

Sad to say that my most vivid memories come from the end of my mother’s life. I was riding my bike up to the Kettle Moraine State Forest when my mother went into the hospital for the last time. It was a big trip that I had planned for a long time. My parents kept my mother’s urgent condition from me so as not to ruin my camping trip. When I called from the pay phone at Mauthe Lake, my father told me that ma was sleeping. I thought that odd. She always wanted to talk to me, but didn’t think that much about it. When I got home she had gone to the hospital. I never saw her again.

We talked on the phone, but my mother didn’t want us to visit her in the hospital during the last days. I feel guilty about that still, but it was a good decision. She wanted us to remember her from better times and I do indeed remember her healthy and happy instead of what I imagine it must have been after the chemotherapy and ravages of cancer.

My father got a call from the hospital about dawn on the day before my mother died. I heard him talking on the phone and inferred what was happening, but didn’t come out of my room when he went to the hospital. We didn’t handle the whole thing very well, but in retrospect I am not sure how it would have worked out any better if we did things differently. I lived in dread the whole day, but she didn’t die that day. I know it is illogical but I convinced myself that she would be out of the woods if she only survived the day, that one more day.

But miracles happen only on television & in the movies.

They cut down the last of the big elm trees soon after Ma died. I thought it was symbolic and I paid special attention. She loved those trees and felt bad as they succumbed one-after-another to the Dutch elm disease until there was only one left standing. The tree by the alley was the last survivor near the house, and Ma was happy to have at least one left. It was in its yellow fall colors as I watched it fall to the ground. It was a pleasant fall day with wispy clouds.

I don’t want to end on this sorrowful note because that is not the end of the story. Among many other things, my mother left me a special legacy. Ma followed my various interests and encouraged them. All I needed to do was mention an interest and soon a book appeared.

I thank my mother for all the books on dinosaurs, ecology and history. Even more important, she gave me the gift of reading itself. A well organized or impressive child I was not, but my mother had confidence in me anyway in a way that only a loving mother can.

My first grade teacher put me into the slow reading group and I lived up to her low expectations of me. My mother complained to the school, essentially arguing that I was not as dumb as I seemed and my problem was not that the reading challenge was too great, but that it was not great enough to hold my interest. She convinced my teacher to put me into a higher reading group. Although I couldn’t meet the lower standards, I could exceed the higher ones with Ma’s help. She made flash cards and we studied not only the day’s lesson but also anticipated the next one.

Being able to do more but not less – this kind of paradox is not uncommon. I wonder how many kids w/o mothers as good as mine were/are trapped by the gentle cruelty of low expectations. Ma saved me from all that. She just expected me to succeed. I did, by my standards at least.

Thanks Ma. Without you, I would be nothing. I wish you could have met the grandchildren. They would have loved you. It has been decades since we talked. Memory fades, but I have not forgotten that I was so very lucky to have you there for me.

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G Washington Distiller

George Washington was good manager and smart investor. He diversified his crops and always looked for profitable enterprise. Among them was a grist mill and – partially based on the – a distillery.

Washington: A Man Who Appreciated Good Spirits

Washington was fond of wine and spirits. He also favored porter beer. He opened the grist mill and distillery later in his life. It soon became a big profit center. We did not learn much about Washington’s booze making enterprise when I was in grade school. There was some effort to keep the whole story obscure, as temperance movements, & even prohibition came to prominence. It wouldn’t do to have the father of our country a prominent boozer and booze maker.

Washington was an extraordinary person. We know Washington the general, Washington the president, even Washington the explorer & surveyor. Washington the builder and practical businessman seems way too much for one man, but this is also a very impressive part of this life, and it was the source of most of his joy. In a less revolutionary time, he would have been content to work his farm and industries. Even as president, he got regular, detailed reports from his plantations (plural) and industries.

We know a lot about how Washington ran the place by these reports and Washington’s replies. He never stopped running the show and it was clearly his passion.

The Distillery Reopened

The distillery was reopened in 2007. They asked for donations from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and within a few hours had millions of dollars in donations. Good PR. The distillers were able to figure out recipes for Washington’s whiskey by looking at records of the types of grains that went into it. The first batches of whiskey were not good; they are learning and improving.

Whiskey Flavor is Mostly Oak and Char

Newly distilled whiskey is clear and not very good. Whiskey takes years to age to get its flavor. MOST of the flavor (60%+) and all its color comes from the wood in the barrels. At temperatures rise and fall, the whiskey is absorbed by the wood and released. Whiskey barrels are always made of white oak and for American whiskey they can be used only once. There is a brisk after market for barrels. Some of them are used by Scotch makers, who do not have the new barrel requirement, and lately some are sold to craft beer brewers. The need to age whiskey is one of the barriers to entry to new distillers, since they have to wait some years to sell product. In Virginia, you can get decent, but not good, whiskey in two years. The minimum for reasonable smoothness is four years. Standard is seven and you can go to about ten years to get the best. It takes longer in places like Scotland because of the cooler weather. Scotch is not much good until it is at least 12-years-old and gets it best at around 18. After that it becomes more expensive but not much better.

Setting the Mash

We got to watch the distiller “setting the mash.” They mix the grains with nearly boiling water and stir it all together. Then they let it cook, i.e. start to ferment. Sweet mash relies on new yeast to make the product. Sour mash, which is more common, takes some of the mash from earlier batches. Sour mash can have a more consistent quality.

More details about the distillery are at this link.

What is art?

Setting the mash is a form of performance art and the act of making whiskey in the traditional way is an art in itself. Consider what it means to create art. We can appreciate paintings and sculpture for the finished product that we can see. But more of the art is related to its production. That is the “act of art” and the act of creation is often more meaningful than the creation itself. Creation of something like whiskey is meaningful to the creators and those around them.

Part of finding meaning in life, as search we should all be making, is working toward excellence and a state of flow, where things just fall into place. We have all experienced this but find it hard to express. What we are doing is less important than the rigor we put into it. A craftsman finds this meaning in making his furniture, pottery, beer or whiskey and seeking excellence in the production. You may seek intellectual excellence. I find great meaning in my forestry. Whatever it is, it is important that it be challenging and NOT all under our control. That is the art. We are responding to changing conditions to create the end we have in mind. The people working at the distillery are artists.

My first picture is me in front of the wheels that work the grist mill. Next are from the distillery. the techniques and tools are like those of Washington’s time.

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Crash & Bang

Crashing, banging, feeling queasy & nearly fainting. These are some of my impressions of the crash-bang course I completed yesterday. I hope I never need to most of what I learned, and I am happy to report that I have never needed any of the more dramatic lessons yet. Much of the less dramatic lessons are good sense. Stay away from bad situations. Don’t make yourself predictable to crooks or nefarious types. Be aware of your surroundings. Common sense too often not commonly applied.

Security is central to all our success, but I do worry that we make a fetish of security to the detriment of other parts of our important work. Diplomacy means getting out, meeting and talking to people. Most of these people will be good or at least okay, but some will be questionable or even nefarious. Most of the places we go will be benign and even pleasant, but some will be unsafe. Even with the most circumspect and careful diplomats will run risks if they are doing their jobs right, and even if we do all the security right, some of us will be hurt and some of us die.

My colleagues and I, we look preposterous in our body armor and oversized helmets. We are awkward when we wear the gear and clumsy putting it on. We don’t do well crawling under the simulated smoke and some of us feel light-headed even looking at pictures of horrendous wounds. I know that I quietly closed my eyes when they showed bloody stumps or sharp objects protruding from parts of the body they do not belong.

But I am proud of my colleagues and proud to be among them. After they learn all the risks, they are still eager to go out and do diplomacy, meet those good people are risk meeting the bad. Some are going to the high-risk posts like Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan or Yemen, but there is always some risk. Nobody expected the embassy bombings in Kenya or Tanzania. As long as I am on this topic, let me emphasis the contribution of our Foreign Service National staff. They are also State Department employees of contractors. They work in their own countries for us. They are often truly on the front lines and when our facilities are attacked they are often the ones injured or killed.

And the kids are okay. Most of the people in the classes are younger than I am (it is hard to be both older than me and still in the FS), and many are new officers. I don’t like it when they are called snowflakes. Old people always think young people are not as good as they were. They are wrong. Every generation has its heroes and this one is responding to its challenges too.

Well, that is my editorial comments. Now for a little of the personal impression. I won’t go into detail, as we are not supposed to.

The part that sounds the most exciting, but I do not much like is the driving. It is okay when I am driving, but I get motion sickness when I am a passenger with all the weaving, fast accelerations and abrupt stops. It was fun to ram other cars. When I did it before, it hurt more because I did it wrong. You have to accelerate just as you hit the other vehicle. That way inertia is on your side. You are being pulled back by the acceleration and so when you hit and are thrown forward it is just kind of equalized.

The emergency medicine was scary. We are not trained treat most wounds, but just preserve life until competent people come along. The key to this is the tourniquet. Most of what I learned about tourniquets is wrong and much has been changed in the last few years. The misinformation came from good sources based on experience in World War I. The thought was that cutting off the blood supply caused gangrene. Doctors observed that many of the wounded with tourniquets developed gangrene. Their problem was with the sample. The ones they saw had lived. The ones w/o the tourniquets were dead. The gangrene came from infections. It is true that a tourniquet can cause damage by starving the tissues of blood and oxygen. But it is not like the blood is likely to get where it is needed anyway. The reason you need the tourniquet is because the blood in coming out through a wound. It is not going to nourish the tissues if it spills out onto the ground.

We learned that the ugliest and most gaping wounds are not always the most important and that internal bleeding can be at bigger threat than the blood we can see. They showed a picture of a guy who died from his heart being impacted by a fast stop and his seatbelt. He seemed okay but died the next day from internal injuries. The lecturer said that old guys like me didn’t have to worry about such things. That begged the question, and somebody asked why. The answer was the old guys are too fragile. We don’t die the next day, because the initial impact kills us.

Now for the bang part. The impact of the shock wave, even from a small explosion, is impressive. I could easily tell the difference between the Glock, AK, M-4 and shotgun when I heard them right after each other, but I don’t think I could do it just hearing one of them in isolation. It is also very hard to tell the direction.

One thing that is clear – and I think something they want to as a take-away – is that it is a lot easier to imagine what to do than do it. Under time pressure and stress, the world is a lot different. It was hard even when we knew the threat was not real and the stress was artificial. Consider if you had a real physical wound. I have never been under angry fire. In Iraq I heard distant bangs a few times and once observed “celebratory fire,” a crowd shooting into the air, which can be dangerous since what goes up must come down. But I was often nervous walking on the streets, even with armed and trained Marines all around me, or riding in the armored vehicles. I know it affected my judgement. They want you to think about the danger before the danger is manifest, since it is too late after.

I took a variation of this course way back in 2007 when I was on my way to be a PRT leader in Iraq. This is what I wrote about it back then. I wrote the above before rereading the below. Some things are different; a lot is the same.

September 23, 2007
A Car Sick & Melancholy Resident of the Twilight Zone

September 20, 2007

Today was the kind of day I will look back on with some fondness, but it was not a good day. I can liken this experience to going to the amusement park and getting to ride the roller coaster – ALL DAY. I am in W. Virginia for evasive driving training. It was good at first. We did some driving on slick surfaces. It was fun to skid around and not too hard for me. Next was also fun, driving around the racetrack dodging orange plastic cones. I did that well too. But then one of my car mates got sick and threw up out the window. I figured that if he was sick, there might be a reason. After that I felt sick myself for the rest of the day.

Of the 28 people in my class, about half of us got sick. It was very jarring. We had to avoid objects and break rapidly. It did not like the smell of exhaust and burning rubber. Hardest for me was driving backwards. I have never been good at backing up and doing it at high speeds is scary for me. Suffice to say, I drove over a few cones. We also had to crash into other cars and ram them out of the way. This was interesting. It is not something you get to do very often w/o pushing up your insurance rates. Tomorrow the bad guys will attack us and we will have to respond by evading driving out of danger. Like so many things relating to Iraq, it will be good to HAVE done, but not good to be gonna do. I think this will become my catch phrase.

September 21/22

It was more fun today. I did not get sick. We had to evade and escape. I did that okay. I enjoy it a lot more when I am not sick, but I am really glad it is over.
At the end of the day, the instructor blew some things up, including an old car, to show us how the different explosions look, sound and smell. That was cool. It is interesting how you can feel the shock waves. Once again my joy in seeing such strange things was mitigated by the knowledge that such things may no longer be so strange in my future life.
Going to these courses makes you a little paranoid. Security guys take some pride in their ability to stimulate unease. They kind of look down on us ordinary guys who do not find the world so immediately threatening. I understand that the situation in Iraq is dangerous and I admit that there are times for vigilance even in America. But I am glad that most Americans can live most of their lives in a state of general unpreparedness. Isn’t this what we want from security? It is a great advantage to be able to walk down the streets of home lost in our own mundane thoughts. I hope that we can help the Iraqis get that back soon and we have to make sure Americans do not lose it – the right to be distracted, the right not to pay attention, or maybe just freedom from fear.

I also called to confirm my milair flight from Amman to Baghdad. They are efficient there. I am on. They said they will inform me of the “show time” when the time gets closer.

I am in that funny twilight zone right now between my former and future lives. I still have to do a few things for IIP/S and I still am the director. People are asking me for decisions and I still have authority. But there is not much left. I will be in Iraq by the end of next weekend.

Now I am going through all the “lasts” at least for a long time. Mariza came down for her last visit before I leave. I went to Arthur Treacher with CJ for the last time this morning. Tomorrow I plan to run for the last time along the upper bike trail. On Monday, I will ride for the last time to work on my bike. Unfortunately, I will not have the time to go down to my forest. I think it will be a lot bigger when I get back. Those trees grow really fast. It is a melancholy time. The feeling has nothing to do with Iraq. This is always the case before a PCS move. I think of all the things I have become accustomed to doing that I will not do for a long time to come, maybe for years, maybe forever. Iraq will be quite an experience no matter what. It will be good to have done it.

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