The Blue Bear


When I was a baby–perhaps for on the occasion of my first or second birthday, no one remembers anymore– my great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, gave me this stuffed bear, which she had made herself. Now, almost 50 years later, I am faced with the task of sending Blue Bear off to the landfill.

My relationship with Blue Bear is an odd one. He was never one of my favorite stuffed animals, and yet I have kept him with me all these years, while the others have fallen by the wayside. He was never particularly soft or cuddly–though age has softened him, as it does all of us– and he did not meet my arcane childhood standards of cuteness. I had my favorites; he was not one of them. I never even gave him a proper name. But he formed the reliable back center of my stuffed animal arrangements, and also made a pretty good pillow for reading.

What my young self did know, however, was that he was handmade expressly for me and that was nothing short of miraculous. I did not come from a crafty family. The kind of emotional weight that I’ve attributed to the gift accounts for his longevity. I’ve dragged him along with me for all these years. Mostly he has spent his time on a closet shelf, ignored but kept, because great-grandma made him so how could I throw him out?

My great-grandmother’s name was Caroline Folkestad, née Thomson. She was born in 1884 in Denmark. I don’t know when she came to the U.S. I don’t know how she met my great-grandfather, Halvard. He was born in Norway in the same year. Did they meet over there and come to the U.S. together, or did they meet in Wisconsin, where they spent most of their life? Or did they even settle in Wisconsin at first? Our family is not big on genealogy or family stories, so I don’t know.

I do know Halvard was a Methodist minister, and so Caroline was a minister’s wife, and that gives me some sense of how she spent her time when she was not crafting bears. Did she make many bears over the years as gifts for friends, family, parishioners–or was Blue Bear sort of a one off?

She was 84 or so when she made that bear, and that is impressive in itself. It was the late 1960’s, and the materials she chose to construct him are representative of the period. His polyester fur, originally brilliant aqua blue, like a swimming pool on a sunny day, and his bronze-tone plastic button eyes are glimpses into the color palette of my childhood. In addition, he used to have bright red felt or something similar lining his ears, but that was chewed off by unknown agents long ago. Yet I still remember the brilliant contrast between the red ears and the aqua blue fur.

bearslumpWhile Blue Bear was a fixture in my bedroom growing up, I barely remember great-grandmother Caroline. Certainly I was too young to remember her giving me the bear. She lived in Wisconsin, and we lived in Colorado, and visits were infrequent. Caroline’s son, my mother’s father, died of cancer when I was only three. So I’m sure she and Halvard came to Denver for the funeral, but I don’t remember that. But that adds one more thing to the very short list of things I know about her: minister’s wife, born in Denmark, made bears, buried son.

My single memory of her comes from a later visit to Wisconsin. I may have been five or so. I have just a few memories of that trip, disjointed and frozen in amber.

1) I had a Little Dot comic book (presumably purchased to keep me quiet on the trip) which just fascinated me.

2) I had to sleep on a couch under the gaze of a stuffed moose head, which was absolutely terrifying. Clutching the Little Dot book helped the terrors to some extent.

3) I remember meeting my great-grandparents at what I assume was their front door. I remember that I stood the height of my great-grandmother’s very ample bosom (she being short and I being tall) which was encased in a curious old fashioned dress with many tiny buttons running down the front. Her arms were soft and pillowy and her hands and arms were covered in spots. I’d never seen age spots before. She had a kindly face, but it was covered with so many wrinkles! Halvard was much the same, fascinatingly wrinkly and spotty, but more lean. He had a gap in his teeth which made him whistle on “s” sounds, like parodies of old men in old-fashioned comedies: “Ssssssscuse me, ssssssonny.”

My parents were very young when they had me. My grandma Folkestad, my mother’s mother, I realize now to my horror, was not much older at that time than I am now. So this was my first encounter with real elders.

I don’t believe I ever saw them again. Caroline died in 1974, a couple of years after our visit, and Halvard followed her in 1977, and all I have of her are my genes, those memory fragments and the bear. I don’t even remember her voice.

Which leads me to musing on what we leave behind, on the ephemeral nature of memory and experience. Some families are big on family lore and stories and those get passed down and repeated over the generations. As I’ve said, my family is not like that, on either side. But I don’t think my family is atypical in our a-historical ways.

Perhaps part of it is the immigrant mindset. The generation who came from the Old World (in my case, Ireland and Scandinavia) seem to have been eager to leave their past behind. Their kids, the second generation, cried “Westward, Ho!” and cut whatever tenuous roots their parents had planted in the Midwest. They had their eye on the future. So I can’t be surprised that we have no tradition of family lore or ways of honoring our ancestors.

I wonder what knowledge of an individual life endures more than two generations out. We pass out of memory so quickly, yet day to day, we live under the comfortable illusion that we’re immortal, and because of this we obsess on all these little conflicts and worries and daydreams which will be forgotten sooner than even we are.

And then, there is the bear.

Blue Bear is hand stitched, so for all I know, he is the last remaining scrap of Caroline’s handiwork, the last evidence of her intentions and skills and creativity (other than myself, I suppose–but you know what I mean.)

Still, fifty years is a long time, even for polyester fun fur, so Blue Bear is disintegrating. In the end, I suppose, time decides things for us this way. But I made things worse by washing him. His head and one arm came loose, revealing that he’d been stuffed with strange scraps and lumps of polyester wadding of different colors. His body material is so fragile at this point I can’t even consider trying to Frankenstein him back together.

KonMari would say it is time to let him go. She would send him to the landfill without compunction. I wince at sending him there, both out of sentimentality and because, being made at the forefront of the polyester revolution, he will never return to the earth. For that same reason, I cannot bury him or burn him. I seriously would give him a “viking funeral” if I could– but LA’s air is bad enough already without me burning plastics in the backyard.

Oh, if only he’d been made of wool! It would be so easy, then. But none of my childhood toys were made of wool. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of any toy I owned which was made of natural materials. Somehow Blue Bear, as a 100% polyester toy, represents my abundantly plastic childhood.

I’m not sure when the world became so very plastic– perhaps the 50’s? Wherever it started, it certainly accelerated through my lifetime. The majority of my childhood was spent immersed in plastic. I ate off of plastic plates set on vinyl tablecloths, slept under poly quilts and 50/50 blend sheets. I think back on my groovy synthetic clothing, my bean bag, my Biggie comb, my Breyer Horses and my Barbies. It’s all buried somewhere now, part of the immortal treasures of the 2oth century, my own King Tut’s Tomb.

My great-grandmother Caroline, on the other hand, was born into a world which did not know polyester or plastic. In fact, rayon and polyester don’t appear on the scene until the 194o’s, so she was over 50 when she first encountered fibers based on petrochemicals. Yet at the end of her life, she stitched a toy for her great granddaughter out of entirely out of these novel, man-made materials. At that time, those bright colors and new textures represented modernity, a break with the past, the thrill of the future. It probably all seemed very hopeful.

And so anyway, I’m trying to figure out what to do with this bear.










Tolkien and Trees


The cypresses of Point Lobos

I love trees. Some of my earliest memories are of trees, and my passion for them and fascination with them only deepens with time. In addition to being a literal tree-hugger, I’m also a bit of a geek (no, tree huggers are not geeks–technically they are eccentrics) so you can imagine how delighted I was when I discovered that the Godfather of Fantasy, J.R.R.. Tolkien, was an unabashed partisan of trees.

A couple of quotes from him regarding trees are making the rounds on the internet, but I’ve learned to distrust popular quotations. They are often misattributed or downright made up. So I searched his edited letters for references to trees.

There are many–he always mentions trees when he describes places, has funny things to say about artists who can’t draw trees, and has many trees of significance in his books, which he mentions in passing, but the following are the more direct defenses of trees:

#165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1955 :

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

#83 From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6 October 1944:

It is not the not-man (e.g. weather) nor man, (even at a bad level), but the man-made that is ultimately daunting and insupportable. If a ragnarök would bum all the slums and gas-works, and shabby garages, and long arc-lit suburbs, it cd. for me bum all the works of art – and I’d go back to trees.

#339 To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph

[In a leader in the Daily Telegraph of 29 June 1972, entitled ‘Forestry and Us’, there occurred this passage: ‘Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings…’ Tolkien’s letter was published, with a slight alteration to the opening sentence, in the issue of 4 July.]

30 June 1972
Merton College, Oxford

Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

I say amen to that last paragraph!

And finally, as an interesting aside which may be of more interest to fantasy geeks than straight-up tree lovers, here he is on the Ents:

#163 To W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955

…Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing  but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connection with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war…







Lost in Light: A Short Film on Light Pollution

Via BoingBoing, a beautifully shot video by Sriram Murali showing the damage done by city lights.

Shot mostly in California, the movie shows how the view gets progressively better as you move away from the lights. Finding locations to shoot at every level of light pollution was a challenge and getting to the darkest skies with no light pollution was a journey in itself. Here’s why I think we should care more. The night skies remind us of our place in the Universe. Imagine if we lived under skies full of stars. That reminder we are a tiny part of this cosmos, the awe and a special connection with this remarkable world would make us much better beings – more thoughtful, inquisitive, empathetic, kind and caring. Imagine kids growing up passionate about astronomy looking for answers and how advanced humankind would be, how connected and caring we’d feel with one another, how noble and adventurous we’d be. How compassionate with fellow species on Earth and how one with Nature we’d feel.

This is an easy problem to fix. On the political front we could start by getting rid of billboards like the mayor of São Paulo did. On the technological front, there are a lot of lessons to learn from the lighting designers of the High Line in New York.

Stellarium: A Handy Desktop Planetarium

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 9.43.36 AM

Let’s say you want to plan a camping trip to coincide with an auspicious time to view a meteor shower (like the Persead shower that reached its peak last week). You’ll want to pick a time when the moon is not up. Or let’s say you want to have some friends over for some planetary viewing and a glass of bourbon (as happened last night at the Root Simple compound). In that case you might want to pick a time when you can also take a look at the moon.

In the pre-personal computer era I used to use a planisphere. I still have my 1980s era plastic planisphere. But the planisphere does not show the planets or moon. You’ve got to hunt down that info elsewhere. And my planisphere is so small that it’s hard to use.

Thankfully, there’s a powerful, free open-source solution: Stellarium. Stellarium is a computer based planetarium that comes in OS X, Windows, Linux and Ubuntu versions. You can dial in any place and time. It comes with a catalog of 600,000 stars, eclipse simulation, meteor shower information, telescope control and much more.

How can you use Stellarium with a telescope or binoculars? I face major challenges using my fully manual Dobsonian telescope in light-polluted Los Angeles. It’s very hard to find “deep sky” objects such as nebulae and star clusters when you can, literally, count the number of stars in the sky. Last night I used my old star maps and regretted not loading Stellarium on Kelly’s laptop.

Stellarium comes with a bunch of scripts that function like planetarium shows. You can watch an eclipse or take a tour of suggested celestial objects. Two inventive teachers went so far as to make their own planetarium with cardboard and use Stellarium with a video projector and mirrored dome. This is just about the best school science project ever:

There’s a beneficial feedback loop here. Kids and adults interested in the night sky will advocate for less or better artificial lighting in the future. Dark skies are essential for the health of both wildlife and us humans. Just ponder the conclusive evidence that links artificial light to breast cancer. But there’s also the beauty of a sky full of stars. While computer based, Stellarium might just get more of us outside at night to look up and ponder our place in this amazing universe.

The Practical Side of Philosophy


How did I get through my entire education without studying so much as a page of philosophy? It is, after all, the foundation of all human knowledge. In desperate act of catch-up, I’ve attempted in the past few years an often difficult program of philosophical and theological self-study.

Now, before you think I’ve gone way off topic on a homesteading blog, let me counter with a few examples of how philosophy can help navigate thorny DIY questions:

  1. How should one evaluate arguments for or against compost tea, organic gardening, or Hugelkultur beds?
  2. Is it ethical to drive/fly/buy stuff in plastic bottles given our ongoing ecological crisis?
  3. Do the humanities or arts have anything meaningful to contribute to our understanding of nature or is the whole shebang covered under the sciences?

In one of the Republican debates last year Marco Rubio quipped that America needs more welders and fewer philosophers. It’s true that much of academic philosophy has devolved into either arcane navel gazing or a dogmatic neuroscience-based materialist orthodoxy. And good luck getting a job with a philosophy degree. But it’s my hope that the practical side of philosophy can be reclaimed, though that might have to happen outside of the context of the university. As an example the creative folks at the Idler Academy in London offer both beekeeping and philosophy classes. To Rubio’s assertion I would counter that we need people who can both weld and understand a logical or ethical argument.

Attempting my own self-study program hasn’t been easy. There’s been a whole bunch of $50 words to learn and I can’t say that I’m anywhere near the point where I can explain key concepts. It would have been better to have started this program earlier in my life and integrated with all the other things I had to study in school.

But as to how to get that self-study program going, I recently found a book that covers the history of philosophy in a clear and entertaining format: Oxford professor Anthony Kenny’s A Brief History of Western Philosophy. I also struggled through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, a difficult but worthwhile tome that completely changed my view of history. You can listen to a five part interview with Taylor via the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Ideas show (this, by the way, shows the cultural superiority of Canadians–I doubt our NPR would do a five hour interview with a philosopher!). But I’d recommend starting with Kenny’s book. Even a cursory study of Aristotle and Plato unlocks a lot of the key issues and debates in Western culture.

In a few more years I hope to know the difference between my epistomologies and phenomenologies. Then I can move on to welding!