Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Pile of Sticks

Real estate folks will start to shoot dirty looks at me.  Economists will call me "nay sayer".  But I have come to the opinion of late that a house is just a pile of sticks.  It is not a golden idol that gets more valuable with time.  We spend our adult lives trying to figure out how to acquire this pile of sticks, carefully wrought, in the "right" neighborhood, that says all the right things about us.  We willingly commit the next 30 years of our labor to pay for it.  It is a transmitter for our souls.  Or is it?

Does our home tell everyone who we are inside? Inside our lives and inside ourselves?  Maybe.  It tells others what we have picked for our shell.  The tortoise shell that we carry around on our backs.  It is the financial burden on our backs and it is not weightless.  It is both refuge and fear.  It is the material possession that we most fear losing.  Everything will fall apart. Without an address we become "homeless" and most of us are much closer to this possibility than we care to realize.  Tottering on the brink.  One good financial tweak, or physical injury, and it can all be gone.  It is something that many folks long for but cannot obtain. Why?

Whom is building these castles for us?  If I just sat down and added up all the lumber, all the drywall, all the shingles, paint, plumbing and wires, how much money would be on this list?  For a 2000 SF house, would it all add up to $300,000-$500,000 (or more) worth of materials?  I would guess not, but we are willing to plunk that money down and sign up for 30 years of fear. A mortgage.  Everyone in charge of this industry is working to make certain that it functions as an ever-increasing value.  There is no upper bound.  Invest in housing, you will get a big return....right.  Many of us learned the hard way in 2008 that false market value is just well, false.

I think those of us in the US remember the Beanie Baby toys?  Those plush little toy critters of all colors and of every description.  Those seemingly worthless toys made of faux fur, stuffing and synthetic beans had a run of "irrational exuberance", a value bubble that is now burst. Folks were fighting for them in stores. People were selling them in want-ads for $800 or $2000 each.  They held conventions for the collectors. Fundamentally, the material content within them was worth pennies.  The only thing that gave them value was how people felt about them.  Yes, opinion set the market price. Sounds an awful lot like the housing market to me.

Rethink housing.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Sometimes on the farm, we lose.  I could present an upbeat, wholly untruthful narrative about the way things turned out on the farm this year. And, if I did so, I would be lying.  We had our share of losses.  No corn, and as it turns out, a pitiful vegetable garden plagued in a Biblical fashion.  Yes, I would have to call it a plague; RATS.

I have always been aware of their existence on this farm but this past winter was especially easy and I noticed them jumping out of the way in front of my tractor when I mowed in early spring.

They haunted all of my dreams of abundance. I planted 50 of the most lovely, lush paste tomato plants one could ever hope for.  I tended them, put manure around their roots, limed the soil to a perfect pH and watched them grow, expand, set flower and fruit.  I staked them with a Florida weave, and the green tomatoes abounded.

Then, in the heat of summer, just when the fruit was taking on a nice blush of red, the plague attacked.  I entered the garden daily to find each fruit still green at the top and eaten on the red-tinted blossom end.  Grrr.  Ok, I thought, just a rat or two (there is never just two where they live in cities). Indeed they are a force of destruction, taking a few nibbles out of each-and-every-somewhat-ripe---tomato.  While they plundered the tomatoes, my beans grew nearby, untouched and unravaged.  Lucky for me my taste runs toward the “haricot vert” side and I picked probably 10 lbs of beans for the freezer.  I felt like I was winning. Why is it that I had to erase this last sentence and rewrite it because of Charlie Sheen? He does not belong in my paragraphs.

All went well until the bean shells swelled with fat seeds inside. Now there was a higher nutrient value within the seeds, and the instinct of these remarkable yet disgusting creatures lead them to the bean patch. 

Half eaten beans, just barely chewed beans, completely eaten beans and very, very few pristine beans left for me.

The beet seedlings; sheared off at the sprouted tops.

Carrot seedlings; gone.

Sweet corn seeds were snatched out of their rows in the ground. No sign of disturbance at the soil surface, just unrealized corn.  Again, corn is an abstract this year on the farm.

I checked the sweet potatoes, previously pushing their tough shoulders against the soil, and rupturing it in great cracks above as they muscled through the dirt.  All dug out of the soil, and eaten.

My heirloom squash seemed to be defiant.  Tough shelled and smooth with a reasonably large diameter, they resisted assault.  Fine pairs of flat chisel marks from rodent incisors began to appear on some of the fruit.  HA HA!  The vermin cannot bite the squash.  I quickly harvested all the ripe and near ripe fruits.  This may be a sign, and adaptive gardening measure.  One should only plant hard shelled veggies. Sigh…not the diverse and tasty garden of my dreams.

What is going on here?

The organic, environmental reason for this plague is an imbalance in the ecosystem.  Perhaps it is the warm winter we had last year? Perhaps it is the presence of Livestock Guardian Dogs keeping rat predators at bay while ignoring the rats themselves?  Perhaps it was the lack of a human presence pushing them back for the past 20 years? Who knows, but this year I am hoping for a mighty winter to descend upon these fields, and for balance to return to the farmstead.