Conservation by Those Getting Their Hands Dirty

My article for the next issue of “Virginia Forests.”

I was a city kid, but my urban Milwaukee public schools featured nature and forestry programs.  These sojourns into nature changed my life. I would not be a forest owner and conservationist today without those experiences.  Today more people live in cities and even small towns kids often lack intimate contact with working nature common in the past – fewer hunt or work on farms. Even fewer are involved in forestry.

Disconnected from Working Nature

A disconnect from working nature fosters destructive outlooks, among them the mistaken idea that humans and nature are separable and maybe should be kept apart, that that nature is fragile and needs walls to keep humans out.

Some places should be walled off – places so unique, beautiful or so crucial that it is best for humans not to tread, at least not often. But most conservation must be done on private lands, on lands humans use.  Not understanding that fundamental truth will make our world less sustainable, less renewable and less resilient.

Sustained Profit Goes with Ecological Sustainability

We can manage land both for profit and for ecological sustainability. It is the best way – the only long-term way.  I know from personal experience and observation that it can be done. This is not a truth easily conveyed to people without similar experience.  Show them a harvest and they see the “destruction.” The easy narrative is that harvesting is stealing from the earth and that the best thing we can do is keep people, their machines and their civilization the heck out of the woods.  How can we tell what we know to be true to people unprepared to hear it?

The answer is that we cannot tell them.  We must show them and share the experience. The key to understanding ecological relationships is boots-on-the-ground, along with an indispensable ingredient – time.  The key to understanding is how relationships develop over time.  If they see the destruction of a harvest, show them what it looks like five or ten years later.  Explain that even right after it is wonderful wildlife habitat. This is what nature education should give young people – and older ones too. This is what we need to strive for in forestry education, not a single visit but engaging over years.

Engaging Means Also Listening

Engaging is more than telling our story to others; it is listening to theirs, understanding their concerns, maybe even changing our own outlooks.  We cannot tell people more than they are ready to hear. By listening first, we can find ways they understand.  This will often mean showing as well as telling and sharing our passion for forestry and welcoming them be part.

Most tree farmers delight in showing their land and telling about it.  Many of us open our land for visits and field days.  Do this and more.  Elsewhere in this issue are articles about education about forestry.  Our part is sharing our experience, our long-term experience of sustaining and regenerating land, while producing forest products and even making a reasonable profit, because most conservation is done on private lands by people willing to get their hands dirty.

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October Forest Visit

I hate to look at it, but I have to learn from the mistake. The lesson that I take is not to do a fire during the growing season, especially when they trees are throwing up new growth. Southern pine can survive scorching, but if the fire gets too hot & knocks out the new candles, the tree dies. I lost a couple dozen.

You can see the damage on the first picture. Look closely at the middle of the picture that dead ones and the live ones next to them The two live ones right past the middle have fire marks on them. The surface fire went under them too, but did not kill them. The second picture looks down the road. Trees on both sides were burned, but they did not die, at least not yet. Picture #3 is the stump. Picture #4 is me after the cutting. Hard to see, but my shirt is soaked through with sweat. It was good exercise, but I will not do it again. Last picture is some of our wildflower/pollinator plantations. It looked really good in person. The photo did not do it justice.

I also think some of the trees died because their roots roasted. The fire dwelt a too long on the edge, smoldered for days.

Nature is resilient and something good will happen.I have still not decided what to do. I might under plant with longleaf, or maybe just let the natural regeneration of loblolly. My guess is that there is a little more than a acre killed. Letting it be natural or planting won’t make that much difference.

I thought I would take advantage of the bad situation by cutting down one of the dead trees and counting the rings. I did own this land when the trees were planted and the previous owner did not have perfect records. Cutting the tree was a mistake. I had only my hand saw and I get really tired about half way through. I had to finish, however. Could not leave a half cut hazard. I cut the tree about waist high and counted 30 rings. I may have missed a couple and it took it a couple years to get waist high, so those trees are probably around 32-35 years old. The rings showed that the tree grew very fast at first, but then slowed a lot, probably because it got crowded out. We thinned this tract in 2017, so it was too early to see results, especially because it was killed early in the season this year.

Also down on the farms I did my usual walk around. It is looking good. Wildflowers are past prime and settling down for winter. They grew a bit longer and thicker this year with all the rain. The pines are done with their last splurge and hardening for the cooler weather.

I thought I needed some comparisons, so I took pictures of my car near the trees. Could not get very close to the trees for fear of getting stuck. The car has all wheel drive but is not an all terrain vehicle.
 

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Book Notes

A few book notes, before the memory fades.

I notice that my books seem to cluster, i.e. there is overlap and synergy among them. No doubt some comes from my own interest and choices, but I think some of this is an artifact of memory. One book makes something salient and then I more easily see it in others, maybe even see what is not there.

Well, since this is a journey in my mind, don’t have to resolve this. Used to be a problem in graduate school, since I would know stuff but not be able to tease out the sources, but now it is just all mine, so if you quote me on it you are working my memory and need to check the original if you want the author’s.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

It started off very strong but then petered out. The first theme was the government requires lots of expertise and that civil servants are generally hard-working people with significant knowledge & commitment is true, IMO. I am both biased and informed by my own background on this. From there, however, he extrapolates too far about government’s role. IMO, government plays a role that only it can play in creating conditions for prosperity but cannot not itself create prosperity. There is big nuance here that I think he did not property address.

A good example of an important government role is in research. He mentions ARPA-E and DARPA, and all the things they gave us, like the Internet and fracking. This is correct but not complete. It is undoubtedly true w/o DARPA there would be no Internet, but it is also true that w/o American private firms and civil society the seed of Internet would have been sterile. Anyway, worth reading the book.

“Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain

This is a great book but a little eclectic. Her main idea is that we have become too in love with extroverts, being out there, groups activities and “brainstorming,” and that we need more introspection and contemplation. I agree.

I also agree with her that the popular idea of introvert is pejorative (you have to come out of your shell) and that being an introvert is not something that needs to be cured and it does not mean that you are not engaged in the word. I come of as introvert of the Myers-Briggs (INTP for those who know the test), but I love public speaking, for example. I just also like to be alone sometimes.

The eclectic part comes from her discussions of the character ethic, systems theories and various sciences. All of this interesting and she probably read many of the same books I did, since I recognize the ideas, but I think it was a little off topic.

“How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life” by Scott Scott Adams

This is the book I would write if I was writing an advice book. I felt a real kindred spirit and attitude. At least that is how I see myself when I am flattering myself – practical, optimistic insouciant, adaptive, “lucky” and a seeker of patterns.

Lucky, which I put in quotes above, is how I would fit it together. You don’t have to be smart if you are lucky, but luck is distributed randomly. Some people get more good breaks than others, but a wise strategy is not to count on that, but rather position yourself so that good luck can “find” you. And when something happens, you have to be ready to move. You can make bad luck into good or the reverse by how you react and adapt.

This leads to the need to look for patterns, think in systems. There is a system to everything. If you can find the key factors and use them, you will be “lucky” more often.

You need to be insouciant and optimistic, since you will fail a lot on your way to success. If you let that stop you, you will not get very far. He did not quote the USMC, but I think it fits here “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.”

He has an interesting formulation, which I agree but did not think of myself. Goals are for losers. Systems are for winners. Look to the process and you can be adaptive. In fact goals and systems will often overlap, but the system is more flexible. At this part I thought of the Stephen Covey habit, “Start with the end in mind.”

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Fire & Water

Fire & Water

Some of my forest is flooded. I have never seen the water this high. Of course it is worse in North Carolina, but our farms are less than 20 miles from North Carolina.

I did not see much storm damage. That flood won’t hurt the trees. I was a little worried that the rushing water would undercut some of the riparian areas, but that seems not ot have happened.Parts of my road are a little rutted, but that comes and goes.

A little less happy news from the area we burned in May. The fire got a little too hot in patches. I was worried that some of the trees were killed and it looks like about a dozen of them won’t be coming back.

Fire is complex. You can estimate its behavior, but it can always surprise you. I suppose I will under plant the dead trees with longleaf in December. The other option is to let the loblolly fill in by themselves. Probably both will happen. I feel bad about my trees, but it is part of the way the pine ecology works.

The thinned pines in Freeman are looking good. The open forest is more like the “original” Virginia and it is very good for wildlife. I saw deer and spooked two covey of bobwhite quail, at least a dozen quail. Hawks and buzzards are flying around. Bees are buzzing, butterflies floating. The cut over has bloomed with wild flowers.

Longleaf are looking good. They are candling out for the last time of this year.

Some of the paths are drowning in bog. My boots got soaked and I finally just stopped trying to avoid the water. I should have brought some extra socks.

Pictures show the pollinator habitat. I included one of the power-line right-of-way. We have eight acres under those lines and it could seem like a waste, but I kinda like them. It is essentially a long narrow strip of permanent pasture. You can see that it is full of grass and forbs, and the power company helps maintain the access road. The last picture is a clear cut in the foreground. This was – believe it or not – clear cut in May, i.e. only three months ago. See how fast it comes back. We will plant longleaf this winter.

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Books of August (and some of September)

One of the collateral joys of my time in São Paulo was walking around the city.   It was a long walk from my hotel to the consulate, around an hour and fifteen minutes each way.  It had “segments” and I kind of thought of it each day with the journey motif, and I will remember it fondly.  I will also remember the association of various features of the walk with particular facts and thought, since I usually listened to audio books.  There as a lot of time walking and I listen at 2x speed, so I got through a few books.  The device has a mechanism that cuts the spaces between the words, so it is not just sped up and made difficult to understand.

Before I forget too much, I thought it might be a good idea to get down a few ideas from books. I am not trying to do book reviews here, but rather a couple of memorable ideas from each.

Let me start with Guardians of the Grail: A Life of Diplomacy on the Edge .   I did write a short review that I posted on Amazon.  My old colleague Chris Datta wrote this book about his experiences in Africa. Look at the Amazon review.  Suffice to say here that it is an exciting book, narrated by the author.

The book that gave me the most food for thought was Who We Are and How We Got Here ,a discussion of recent developments in tracing human movements and interactions around the world through the study of DNA.  Some of the new evidence comports well with earlier historical predilections; most do not.

ALL ideas of race and nationality are silly in the context of deep time or even more than a few generations.  This is the main take-away for me.  The races, and ethnic groups of the past are no longer with us.  They were ephemeral mixes.  We like to trace our ancestry to people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago, but we are mistaken to do so.

The example that I liked to think of is comparing cake, to bread to beer.  All these things share major ingredients, but they are put together in different ways producing different products.  And they are reconstituted with each creation.  The beer could not “trace its ancestry” to beers of a century ago with any more justification than could the cake or the bread.  All of them are merely the current manifestation of the ingredients.

Brought back to the DNA, ALL history is the common heritage of humanity.  We can take credit and must learn from the mistakes of any people anywhere.  Reading the book into deep history, I looked in vain for “my people” as distinct from others.  Rather I learned that “my people” include the ancestors of Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, Asian, well – everybody.  So “my” people built the great cathedrals of Europe, the pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, the Great Wall of China and the walls of Zimbabwe.  Unfortunately, they also rode with Genghis Khan, sacked Rome, destroyed the library at Alexandria and engaged in endemic war against neighbors.  “My” people were on both sides of all the conflicts. They were the conquerors and the conquered, the builders and the busters, the scholars and the burners of books.  History belongs to everyone living today and we can all learn.

I also listened to She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity  along a similar theme.  It was interesting but much more personalized.  I was less enamored, but recognize that I likely would have appreciated it more had I not been listening so close to the, IMO, much more masterful work on similar subjects.

Along similar lines is  The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life .  This was a probably a great book, but I was ready to listen to a different sort after “Who we are”.   The main take-away for me was that the “tree of life” metaphor is seriously flawed the fact that we have a tree in mind when thinking of genetics leads us to faulty understanding.  The title is well chosen. The tree of life is not a tree at all, not even a bush.  It is more like a glob, with ostensible branches going both up, down, all around.

What this book shares with “Who We Are”, or at least the thought that both provoked in me, was to see the great commonality in all things.  Just as races and ethnic groups are just ephemeral combination and recombination of common material, as permanent as tears in the rain.  The same goes for whole species.  Impermanence is the rule, even as we look for permanence in theory.

The new idea is that species boundaries are very fluid.  MOST of what makes up our bodies results from colonization from something very different.  We are more like federations than a clear species. There ae implications here for biotechnology, evolution and just how we understand life.

Many “primitive” organisms common swap characteristics. It is one the traits that allows them to adapt so rapidly and calls into question about what “belongs” to each species.

The President Is Missing was written by former president Bill Clinton.  It is a kind of political thriller. The hero is the president Bill Clinton might have imagined he would have been.  I bought it because I was looking for some insights that I thought a real president might add to a book of fiction.  There were none. It is a decent book. Like a few Clinton speeches, it goes on a bit too long.  I would recommend the book, but maybe listen at 2x speed as I did.

Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America describes exactly the kinds of journeys I would like to make myself.  It is entertaining and generally optimistic about the virtue & challenges of ordinary American people.  It is mostly a series of vignettes. You could start or stop at almost any point in the book and not notice the difference.  That was the strength and the weakness of the book.  James Fallows usually writes articles and has done that here too in his book.

A great narrative of progress was The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World .  I have read other books by Simon Winchester.  What I most enjoy about his books is his facility with beautiful language, but this is also a really good story.

I never finished my history PhD, and never even started a dissertation, but I did think about a subject. I was interested in a big history topic – why did the Greeks or Romans not have an industrial revolution?  Since those long-ago college days, I have come across many ideas.  I used to think that the Greeks and Romans had all the technologies needed, but I was wrong.  They lacked intellectual technologies.  Invented within only the last 500 years were intellectual technologies like calculus, statistics, various sorts of engineering, actual scientific methods, among other things like functions (mostly) free markets. To this list I must now add the concept and ability to apply precision, w/o which true mass production is not possible.   Thanks to this book, I have added to my list of preconditions for modern life.

Ironically, my younger and more ignorant self could have written that dissertation that is now beyond me because I learned too much.

Speaking of being ignorant, You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself  covers lots of the heuristics and cognitive shortcuts that we all use, allow us not to think things through and sometimes lead us astray.  There was little in the book that I had not heard before, but that is because I have been studying persuasion and bounded decision making for many years.  Even with that, it was useful and interesting for me to hear it again.  I understand that I am not as smart as I like to think, and I need to hear these things again lest I forget.  I recommend it generally.

A similar repackaging of good ideas is Influencer: The Power to Change Anything . There was nothing there that I did not know, but it is good to hear it again and keep it in mind when you are working in businesses like I used to (sometimes still) do.

Energy: A Human History is not the kind of book you should consume as an audio book.  It is well-written and very informative, but it is the kind of book you should probably read and maybe underline some parts.  It is maybe also better as a companion to a course on energy history, or maybe just history of industrialization.  I liked some of the ways the author uses language. It is a bit archaic, but elegant.  For example, he uses phrases like “… is prodigal of energy.”

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Thoughts on my 42 Days in Brazil

Thoughts on my 42 Days in Brazil  

Examining my time in São Paulo & Brazil, July 29-September 8, 2018
(slightly redacted version)

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Minding the Gap

The State Department asked me to “hold the post” in São Paulo, to cover an unusually long gap between American officers in the public affairs role. They needed someone who could step in w/o missing a beat and then as easily step out again when the work was done.  My experience meant I could do it and my love of Brazil meant I would do. They needed me to stay in São Paulo for 42 days.  That was my mission.

The mission that I set for myself was a little more than merely minding the gap.  The mission I assigned myself was (switching metaphors) to grow the pie with an energetic program of outreach to meet important people, especially those the USG had chosen for exchanges in times past, and to engage them again. Diplomacy is about engaging people.  I wanted to see and hear about what had happened with those we engaged.  This had the added benefit of keeping out contact network alive and vital.  In diplomacy, sometimes just being there is the job. Very often the process of setting up and attending meeting is also the product.

During my too-brief time in Brazil I had in depth contact with dozens of interesting and important people, and more fleeting contact with literally hundreds more.  I feel I earned the “vast sums” the State Department spent to send me here.  An important truth I learned in the FS was that our individual efforts disappear like tears in the rain unless we pass them along by writing notes. I wanted to examine the experience, as well as document it.  I wrote notes about some of the more interesting meetings. So as not to stall the narrative, I will make only passing references to them.

We Americans sometimes complain that people in other countries do not like us, or at least not properly appreciate us.  This has not been my experience.  Of course, nobody is universally liked, and everybody can find something not to like in a great and active power like the United States of America, but my interactions were generally friendly, from taxi drivers, to youth reps to professors or officials local and national.  It may be a blow to American ego, but most people do not think about America most of the time.  This means that they are often not aware of the good we do around the world or about those things we are less proud to have done or tolerated.  Brazilians are certainly not uninterested in the USA, but their interest in the details of our politics or society is not as acute as we might hope or fear.
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Soft Power

That is not to say America is absent.  On the contrary, America is ubiquitous in Brazil. This is soft power and exercising soft power is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.  So maybe we should just appreciate it for bringing our countries closer.  The irony is that Brazilians sometimes do not think about American culture as American.  I know this sounds odd but consider our own consumption of foreign culture.  When we watch Downton Abby, we are not thinking “Ah British culture,” at least I am not.  We are not appreciating the Germans when we listen to Beethoven, nor are fans of manga usually thinking much about the Japanese.  Yet these are indeed vehicles for cultural expression and could be said to be transmitters of soft power. Rather than being purveyors of these cultural products, a good diplomat can tag along with them, using them to help make connections.  If we want to look like we are leading the parade, we can get in front, but it rarely depends on us.

For example, the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra played a tribute to Leonard Bernstein, including selections from Candide, West Side Story, Slava & On the Town. Good to see American culture showcased in Brazil. The concert was at the beautiful São Paulo Municipal Theater. The Consul-General and I attended the concert, as guests not sponsors.  Yet we could have achieved no more if we had covered the costs and been the impresarios.  The Conductor praised Bernstein and implicitly the culture that produced him.  They brought a 1950s era Ford Fairlane as a prop outside the venue. People lined up to take their pictures with it.  It would be one of the year’s highlights if the Consulate-General had organized the event, but all we needed do was be there to enjoy the music and the praise. Of course, it does make it better if we officially attend. Showing appreciation for the work of others is more than just good manners: it is an influence enhancer.  As the old Yogi Berra joke goes, “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”

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Talking to Those Our Programs Touched

We cannot deeply engage with large general audiences, like the hundreds that attended one of the Bernstein concerts (plural – it was a series).  My focus and effort were on a subset of the general population – Brazilians who had been directly touched by one or more of our USG programs. This included IVLPs, youth exchanges, Fulbright and speaker programs.  These programs are resource intensive for the USG. I was confident that participants would have great and good stories to tell, but I did approach with my research with a twinge of trepidation.

Full disclosure – I am a true believer in the value of exchange.  What if it turned out that the exchanges did not work?  I would certainly suffer a crisis of faith.  And what does it mean to say that they did work anyway?  I settled on a general idea that an exchange worked to the extent that it improved Brazilian-American relations, provided lasting connections between our two nations and produced desirable outcomes in Brazil or the USA, preferably both.

My fears were unfounded, and faith rewarded. I understand that my sample was small and not random, biased toward those who had been successful, since they would be the ones easiest to talk to and mostly likely to want to talk with us.  But I found enough great results to make up for the less successful instances I might have missed.  This was not my first foray into this territory.   As public affairs officer in Brazil (2011-14), I made a special effort to reach out to former exchange participants whenever I traveled.  With no exceptions (and I mean zero exceptions), the returnees talked about their experiences in glowing terms, often calling them life changing.   But this time I was looking for a little different angle. Besides asking what they visit had done for them, I was also looking for the longer-term impact on Brazilian-American relations and on common aspirations of our nations.

Some of the Brazilians I met came back from their exchanges decades ago.  There was even one that I would call a second-generation beneficiary, who represents Harvard in Brazil, told me that her father had been an IVLP (or whatever it was called in those day) in the 1970s.  His experience made an impression on him and his family, i.e. her, making connections with the USA seem much more normal and natural. Others, especially many of the youth exchange participants were newly returned within the last couple of years, sometimes months.  To address first criteria – improvements of Brazilian-American relations – these exchanges were a clear success in that we could easily access these important Brazilians.  They all took our calls and were happy to talk to us.  This fact alone satisfied the requirement that the exchange be useful for Brazilian-American relations.

Our one serious glitch actually illustrates the power of the program. I reached out to former IVLP a Brazilian federal judge famous for the prosecution of the crimes identified in the Operation Car Wash (Portuguese: Operação Lava Jato), a case of high-profile scandals of corruption and bribery involving government officials and business executives.

He participated in an IVLP where he visited U.S. agencies and institutions responsible for preventing and combating money laundering.  It is widely appreciated that this guy acted with remarkably strong ethics and probity, even going against members of his own party to root out corruption. This series of investigations resulted in the impeachment of a sitting president and the conviction and incarceration of a former one. Did his IVLP affect his thinking and action? I cannot know for sure because we did not discuss it, could not discuss it.   He accepted my invitation to talk (a plus for the program’s reach) but we decided that it was not a good idea for representatives of the USG to be talking to someone with such a high profile when some of those affected by his opinions were involved in upcoming elections.  Strong circumstantial evidence, however, points to a program success. At least that is what it looks like to me.

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 IVLP

I spent many hours talking to alumni and have a few observations to share.  Let me start with IVLP alumni.  You can see more detail in my write-ups at the end. They were doing all sorts of valuable things along the lines of their programs and keeping contact with Americans, not only with USG, enhancing the common good.  One participant had started a blog and movement to tell women’s stories of the challenges with sexism in the workplace and with life.  She was not only inspired by American counterparts but was clearly inspiring some of them.  A true continuing exchange. Another was using information she had gathered on her IVLP sojourn and working still with American colleagues to identify illegally harvested wood.  American colleagues were learning from her and often together they were taking insights arrived at in the collaborations to other countries around the world where tropical forests were threatened. These efforts are helping us effectively enforce our own American laws, like the Lacy Act. During a program on volunteerism, I was embarrassed by the praise heaped on the USA by participants.  They said things about us that none of us could have said.  The program was the launch of a volunteering platform, expected to reach millions of Brazilians created by an IVLP alum whose program had been on volunteerism a few years back.  BTW, this was the national launch.  He already had created or inspired a half dozen such projects on the state level. We met an IVLP whose visit centered on addressing toxic waste in water and soil and was now facilitating USA investment, among other things, by inspecting and remediating brownfield sites.

In short, among IVLP alumni I found nothing but success and mostly resounding success.

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Youth

Brazil’s flagship youth exchange is the Youth Ambassador Program.  This has been going since 2002 and remains highly competitive, often with more than 10,000 applicants for 50 slots.  Since 2006, the Mission sponsored English immersion courses for runners-up and hundreds of young Brazilians have enjoyed the benefits.  Our binational centers, American Centers and EducationUSA branches all participate, drawing participants from all the regions in Brazil. It would be easy to take all or most of the participants from places like São Paulo or Rio, only from big cities, but emphasis on Brazil-wide inclusion makes the program more effective. Youth Ambassadors and related programs have now affected hundreds of young Brazilians and the earliest recipients are now in their early and mid-30s. More recently we have been doing Young Leaders of the Americas Exchanges (YLAE) for aspiring entrepreneurs.

During my 42 days in Brazil I spoke with dozens of Youth Ambassador Alumni and have been in contact with more.  These supplement and update my previous contacts as PAO in Brazil 2011-14. Whenever I traveled, I made a point of inviting local youth alumni to pizza lunches.  Then and now, I found uniform success.  Youth touched by our programs had become successful and all were grateful for the experience.  “Life changing” was the way I heard the programs described again and again.  But there is more.  Many alumni are now in positions of significant authority in business, government and in NGOs. One Youth Ambassador Alum is running for Congress in this elections cycle.  We have a strong network throughout Brazil and one that is growing in both size and importance each year.

I spoke to a few Youth Ambassador Alums about “reach back.”  How did they think that their experience affected their larger communities?  This was important, since all of them came from challenging circumstances.  It is gratifying to give a few a chance for a better life, even better if the ripples of their success move others along.  I got thoughtful and sometimes inspiring answers. All thought (hoped) that the power of their example was helpful, but most had actually reached back with concrete effort. One very good example was a YA who right after coming back set up a leadership program in high schools in his state.  The program he set up in his own high school reached an estimated 800 kids and it inspired the creation of a network of seven similar programs throughout the state.  The idea is to make the kids agents of positive change.  I am not sure how we can measure that, since in the process of expanding the programs and ideas are adapting to local conditions and so becoming harder to trace.  I am sure that the effects are real, persistent and positive.

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Speakers

During my time here, I had the chance to attend only one speaker program, this on bio mathematics. This visit satisfied a couple of our goals. First was the simple connections principle. One of the most important functions of diplomats is that we act as connectors, putting Americans in touch with counterparts in other places. Connectors play a key role in the information ecosystem but they (we) are easily overlooked or dismissed.  I have confidence that the follow up will be significant and lasting. Second was the USA example of women in STEM.

I also had an experience that I will credit as a speaker program but let me explain the trajectory. It was gratifying to meet Jeremy Buzzell, Chief for the Accessibility Management Program at the National Park Service, maybe more a vindication of old school people-to-people diplomacy.  I connected Jeremy Buzzell with Juarez Michelotti, from SESC São Paulo at the request of then former State Department colleagues, former since this was 2016 and I had just retired from FS.  For me it was a simple matter of looking up on the internet making a few calls.  USG is USG no matter the branch. I did not know the particular people at the Park Service, but I know how the system works generally.   It was harder for Brazilian friends.  Imagine how it would be to find similar Brazilian officials for someone outside the structure.  Anyway, I called Mr. Buzzell, made the connection and mostly forgot about it. I did keep in sporadic contact with Juarez, however, because of my personal interest in his work of ecological restoration of Brazil’s Atlantic forests, and when I came on my sojourn to São Paulo I got in touch to with him to meet him in person and maybe see the forests.  So, my colleague Joyce Costa and I arranged to go.  With the date set Juarez gave me the good news that coincidentally Mr. Buzzell would also be there helping them with a program on accessibly.

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Education

The high point of my FS career came with my involvement with the Brazilians Science w/o Borders program.  I am morally certain that the Mission’s quick and sustained support was instrumental to the program’s success. Ultimately around 33,000 Brazilian students went to the USA on this program. It contributed an estimated $1.5 billion into the American higher education economy and the benefits of long-term contact I believe will be immense.

Unfortunately, I was unable to do extensive meetings with returned students, since they had dispersed throughout Brazil.  I did, however, talk to Luiz Loureiro, executive director of Fulbright in Brazil, and with academics who worked with the program.  I became aware of a Brazilian Academy of Sciences study that determined that around 20% of SwB participants went on to advanced degrees, compared with only around 5% of similarly situated students who did not go on the program.  The researchers also reported an even greater positive impact on low income participants when compared to their peers.  The study found it too early to say definitively, but so far it looks like a success. That comported well with my anecdotal evidence.  I have reasonable faith that sending more than 30,000 Brazilians to study STEM in the USA is bound to produce good results.  The only caveat in the studies I read were concerns that that the money committed by the Brazilian government might have been better deployed in improving primary education.   That is a value judgement about which I will not voice an opinion.

Interest in studying in the USA declined with the ending of the SwB program in 2016, no surprise there, but has since rebounded.  I was able to attend an EducationUSA event in São Paulo where around 2500 prospective students showed up.  Our EducationUSA offices throughout Brazil are showing increases, according to director Rita Moriconi.  She is considering opening a new one in far off state of Acre.  We opened one in distant Roraima during my last months in Brazil and it is still going strong.

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English Teaching and BNCs

I was able to visit three BNCs:  Casa Thomas Jefferson in Brasilia, Cultural in Porto Alegre and had a long visit with Silva Helena Correa, who directs Alumni, the BNC in São Paulo.  I spoke to a group of Access Students in Porto Alegre and to English teaching through sports at SESC in Bertioga in São Paulo state.  Our programs are strong.  Particularly impressive is the maker space in Brasilia that was built in cooperation with Casa Thomas Jefferson, Smithsonian and Mission Brazil. I wrote more extensively about the maker space in an earlier post. Rather than risk stalling the narrative again, I refer you to that.  It also has pictures.

And Just Because it’s Fun …

A Visit with an Old Colleague

A maybe off-beat but rewarding “event” was my visit with Paulo Agustoni. Paulo had been working for the USG for more forty years by the time I started in the FS and he was waiting from me when I took up my first post in Porto Alegre back in 1985. All counted, Paulo would spend more than fifty (50) years in the service of the United States of America. He showed me his service pins from ten, twenty, thirty and forty years of service. They evidently do not have one for fifty. It so rarely comes up. Paulo must be one of the longest-serving employees in the USG.  We will not soon see his like again.

I visited Paulo at his home in Porto Alegre on a rainy Sunday morning.  He is now 91 years old. It was a great history lesson to hear him talk and I just enjoyed meeting and reminiscing with an old friend.  I also got some insights into the immigration history of southern Brazil, things I had not known about Paulo or the State of Rio Grande do Sul.  Of course, my couple of years with him 1985-8 representing only a little wrinkle in time for his long career. Nevertheless, I heard from multiple “grapevine” sources that my visit had been an important day for him. I was happy to do it.

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Talking Taxi

 

Taxi drivers are often a source of good information.  I talked to them less after I figured out I could walk so many places in São Paulo, but I learned a few things nevertheless.

I find it surprising that the drivers do not immediately guess where I am from. Of course, they know that I am some kind of outsider. We Americans think that others think about us more than they really do. Taxi drivers are aware of the USA. How could they not be? But the USA is not top of mind for them. They have plenty of other problems, hopes and dreams. I have did asked any of them specifically what they think of the USA and none volunteered any general attitudes, although many have friends or relatives who have been to the USA. Some of their questions, however, illustrate their impression. One driver asked me if we had homeless in the USA. Another asked if we had traffic that requires a rodizio (where different license numbers cannot enter town during rush hour on different days). I talked to one guy about relative prices. Food is generally cheaper in Brazil than in the USA, but not in relation to salaries, and many other sorts of good, electronics for example, are more expensive both nominally and in absolute numbers.

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Some Routine

My assignment was to hold the post and that I did also in those thing that fall between the banal and the mundane. I attended the mandatory meetings and tried to give useful advice, drawing on my experience, about upcoming official visits, media and meetings.  I signed, cleared and commented as appropriate.  I never much liked this part of the job, but it seems a lot less onerous when you know it is not your fate to be doing it for very long.  My grants warrant was no longer valid. It would have been useful to post for me to have a valid grants warrant, but that is maybe a consideration for another time. I took part in the briefings, most notably (i.e. I actually produced notes) for the Smart Cities trade mission and at the social event at the CG’s residence I interacted with the USA representatives and their Brazilian colleagues, I think to some benefit for connections and I interacted with the advance team for a potential visit of Alex Azar, head of Health and Human Services.

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Business Cards: Prosaic & Exotic

I brought with me around 100 business cards with only my name, email and the State Department golden eagle, those fancy and expensive Department of State variety. I had them made years ago when I was between tours and wanted something to give.  I still had a box left. I like to give cards and entice my interlocutors reciprocate.  My memory for names is weak and the card also gives me an email to follow up.  I usually write notes or send something if I think we have some connection.  I very quickly ran out of the State Department cards and had to resort to my personal cards. My personal cards were popular. Several people commented on them and a couple people approached me to ask for one, evidently having been shown one by someone else.  I think the picture does it – me standing smiling in front of a forest fire – but people also comment on my gentleman of leisure title. The big problem with my personal cards is that I need to explain my status.  This is good and bad. On the one hand, it tends to hold the person long enough to make that personal connection. On the other hand, it is confusing. At one event, they made a name tag for me that said, “Consul for Virginia Tree Farm.”   On the third hand (yes, third. Who knew?), it does allow them to find me later, after I am gone from São Paulo, not sure if that is entirely good or bad.  One interesting permutation, I got a call asking me to meet someone at CETESB (São Paulo’s environmental regulatory agency), seemed a useful meeting, so I went.  They wanted to see me because of the card.  Someone showed the card to them and they were intrigued by the picture and the function.  We talked about the need for certification of timber products, among other things.  It fits generally (vaguely) in our Mission goals, but I was speaking more as a subject matter “expert” (I dislike using that term for myself) more than a representative.
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Human Relations

I will assert that I improved morale among the LES. Since they will be among the potential readers of this report, I hope I am right. I knew most of them from previous tours and visits.  I think they benefited from having me around.  I served in Brazil in a remarkable time.  The Brazilian economy was booming.  People were optimistic about the future.  In our particular work, Science w/o Borders, English w/o Borders and various outreach and exchange programs were reaching their apogees, or at least local peaks. These were good old days, objectively and make to shine even more lustrously by the passage of time. I could be a souvenir of that.

I also like to think that I improve the collective intelligence of any group I join.  My preferred explanation for this is that I am smart and energetic, but I suspect that the real reason might be that I am obtuse but persistent enough that people have to explain things to me and in process are motivated to think through their ideas in new ways.

Whenever I reached out to contacts, I did it through my LES colleagues.   I think that I provided a good pretext for outreach. I tried to make the contact and then let them get to their business.

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Grateful for the Chance to Do it Again

I enjoyed being in Brazil again and in São Paulo for a longer time than ever before.  I enjoyed trying to revive my Portuguese and reach out to once and future contacts.  I walked many of the places I needed to go, including usually the hour and fifteen-minute walk to and from the Consulate-General from my hotel.  I got to know São Paulo from the slower, pedestrian perspective. There is a lot more to this great and big city than you can easily see from the window of a fast-moving car. Of course, in São Paulo traffic is rarely fast-moving, but in those cases you too often see only the brake lights of the cars around. There is some crime in São Paulo (I hear) but I did not and do not feel the city was a very threatening place, if you are aware of where you are going. I was not a victim of crime, at least I hope not. I am writing this on my penultimate day.  Could be I am ultimately unlucky.

I did not achieve all the goals I set out for myself.  My biggest gap was not being able to do a more comprehensive assessment of Science w/o Borders, but that was a task beyond my reach, as I determined when I started to work on it.  I did an active program of meetings and discussions.  I reached out to Brazilians in some way every single one of my 42 days in Brazil save one – Sunday August 26, when I had no appointments and it rained most of the day. I hunkered down.  Some random folks that I approached to talk about … whatever … may just remember the crazy American who wanted to talk to them about their work and thoughts, but I think they will remember.

I coulda/shoulda/woulda done more, but I think I did a lot in 42 days.  It is was a great experience but I treated my time as sprint, rather than the marathon if I had more time. I am kind of tired now and ready to go home, even with some things I wanted to do still undone. Anyway, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what is a heaven for.

All my pictures are from my 42 days in Brazil except the one below.  That is my Virginia tree farm. Got things to do, trees to manage. You don’t think trees will just grow by themselves, do you?

As a parting though, let me say that my tree farming has informed my understanding of everything else. I see complex ecological relationships in all human interactions and have implicitly and explicitly applied ecological principles to my work in Brazil, and elsewhere.  Trying to find insights in complex adaptive systems is a true joy, whether ecology on the farm or ecology in the community.

I have been lucky enough to have diverse interests and lots of opportunities to examine & indulge them. You need not decide what you “really” like best when you have options.  I have long noticed, however, that when my mind wanders, it mostly wanders into the woods, so it will be nice to be back.

Thank you,

John Matel – Temporary Diplomat, Gentleman of Leisure, Conservationist & Tree Farmer

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Last Days in Brazil – Monday

Went with CG to a concert by the Dresden Philharmonic. They played Beethoven, Mozart and Shostakovitch. The big star, IMO, was pianist Herbert Schuch. That boy can play. I was watching him most of all and thinking of the sheer physical stamina needed to produce that beautiful music.

The concert was staged in the Aula, which used to be a train station. It is beautifully done, with lots of wonderful woodwork, see the pictures. Unfortunately, the neighborhood around is a cracolândia, The CG had a driver and an armored vehicle, but it still was scary going through. Actually more tragic than scary, when you imagine the desperate lives those people lead.

The first four pictures show the venue. Last is supper. We ate at Coco Bambu before the concert.

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Value of Hypocrisy

I am a hypocrite and I proudly so. Hypocrisy is a prerequisite for civilization and the basis of courtesy. Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice plays to virtue, since hypocrisy implies acceptance of the value you pretend to have.

 

Diplomacy, Politics & Courtesy are Hypocrisy Codified

All good diplomats, all good statesmen & most good people are hypocrites. They must work productively with people whose values they do not share, often with people they personally dislike. Would it be nobler to be sincere and express their “true” feelings, presuming they have thought through what the true feeling even are?  It sure would not get more done.

The right question is to ask what people CAN do, not what they can’t. Effective people look for common goals among opponents and common aspirations even among enemies. You need not agree on everything to work together on something.

Look for Agreement

In my diplomatic career, I have usually followed the maxim that – “You make friends shoulder to shoulder not face to face,” i.e. working together on common aspirations is better than talking about your problems. I do not want to disparage dialogue, but you should be looking for shared aspiration, not just airing grievances. Just talking about differences as often leads to finding more differences rather than resolving those you have already. “What can we do together?” is better than “Why don’t you like me?”

When I meet someone, I look for common aspirations – looking for the doors or windows – the ways in – not the stone walls that keep us out. This just makes sense. I do not know why you would do anything else. Yet, I find more-and-more people rejecting this. I hear people saying that they cannot talk to “those people” because “they” are unreasonable. Yeah. They say this w/o seeing the irony.

I joke that when I was serving in Iraq (2007-8) I ate lunch with guys who would have – maybe tried to kill me only weeks before. I do not think it was always just a joke. I have found common aspirations with communists, religious radicals, former (maybe current) criminals and lots of people who just hated people like me or what I represented. It was rarely pleasant at first and often never got better, but sometimes we found something we both wanted and could set aside our dislike to get it.

Feeling Righteous or Being Right

It is satisfying to be self-righteous, to assume that you or your group has a monopoly on “the good.” We all want to think we are fighting the good fight. After the fight, however, how many times have you regretted the need for the violence (real or intellectual).  Surveying the carnage and destruction after the battle of Waterloo, his great victory that he had anticipated for a decade, the Duke of Wellington reportedly said, “The only thing worse than a battle lost is a battle won.”

If we can (and should) look for common ground with foreign enemies, we certainly cannot deny this to our fellow American opponents.

It is NOT a betrayal of principles to work with opponents and find common purpose with enemies. In fact, it is affirming a greater principle of inclusiveness. It is how civilization works. Let’s maybe be less indulgently sincere. Hypocrites often get more done and almost always are more pleasant to be around.

And if you look for it, you may sincerely find good in those you think hate you and maybe you can hate the a little less and maybe learn not to hate at all.

 

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Last Days in Brazil – Sunday

I am getting down to my “lasts” as my São Paulo narrative winds down. Today is my last Sunday, so I went over to Ibirapuera Park, where I had walked on my first day here. I got there a lot faster, since I walked straighter route. It also seems less time spent when you are more familiar. Usually when I walk I listen to my audio books. This morning I just forgot. It was one of those “lost in thoughts” days. Not sure what I was usually thinking about, although I do have a few pictures to remind me.

One persistent thought was just the appreciation for the joy people were taking in their park. Ibirapuera Park is crowded with people walking, biking, talking and just hanging around. I recall not always being so happy with this sort of thing. When I used to run, I disliked the crowds that got in my way. I was probably a kind of running a-hole. Some like I used to be were out running today – too serious about finishing their workout. I tried to stay out of the way, but I know that I disturbed at least one run as a fit young man almost ran into me as I looked up at some pine trees. 

My first picture is kind of a meta-picture, i.e. a picture of a guy taking a picture. next are some araucaria angustifolia, the Paraná pine. These are from southern Brazil, beautiful trees. They are not true pines, however. There are no true pines (genus pinus) extant in Brazil. Next picture shows pines (of course not the tree in the middle). I could not tell if they were loblolly. They kind of smelled like loblolly. Could be slash pine or even Monterrey pine (pinus radiata). I just am not so good at telling pines from each other. I often rely on geography for hints, i.e. if I see a pine in northern Arizona it is likely ponderosa, but here that does not work. I know they are not longleaf, since the cones are too small and the needles too short. I cannot dislike pines, but many Brazilian ecologists do. They are considered invasive here. They do grow well here. Monterrey pines grow much better in the Southern Hemisphere than they do in their native range. Next picture shows some runners and the park pond.

Went to the hypermarket to get my last week’s supply of Coke and beer. Lots of bike riders around. The other pictures are left over from the park visit, mentioned above.

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EducationUSA

Went to the São Paulo EducationUSA today. We suffered a little when Science w/o Borders went away, but now interest in studying in the USA is coming back. I don’t recall the number that they said had registered, but the place was packed.

Education was the big thing when I was PAO in Brazil. I made it our top priority, so that we could take advantage of the Science w/o Borders program and we ended up getting more than 30,000 Brazilians to the USA in that program. This added something like $1.2 billion to the American education economy and had immeasurable benefit to the lives of those involved and scholarship in general. I do not regret but am still annoyed that the State Department inspectors marked me down for putting too much emphasis on that one aspect of our work. Please excuse my complaint, but I guess it still rankles a bit. They had the right to write that report and I had the right to think they were full of crap.

Science w/o Borders was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was well worth it to “unbalance” the program for a short time. It was like a guy digging for silver who finds gold. You don’t just ignore it because it was not on the agenda. Well, that is my complaint. My Ambassador Tom Shannon and others supported me, so the bad report did me no lasting harm and I am convinced that pushing for that education did some lasting good.

My old friend and colleague Rita Moriconi was at the fair. She had/has the education portfolio for Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina and provides the power that keeps these kinds of things running. The São Paulo fair is sponsored by the local Binational Center – Alumni. They have been sponsoring for more than fifteen years.

Our new Consul-General Adam Shub gave welcoming remarks. It is good to have high level support.

To recycle a little text from last time I did a fair – Rita Moriconi can correct me if I am wrong – EducationUSA fairs are self-supporting, i.e. the schools and others who take part pay the full cost. Presumably participants think that the return is worth it. Each Brazilian student brings in around $55,000 in direct benefits into the American economy for each year they are studying (not counting all the intangibles and long term), so if a school attracts only one or two it more than pays for the effort. The USG outlay is only for some incidentals and our time, which is free to the USG, since we get paid the same anyway.whether we work on Saturday or not.

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