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An early start on the 2021 garden

Amazon calls this a “mini greenhouse.” I’d call it a cold frame. It will be my first experiment in extending the growing season. It’s 95″ x 32″ x 32″ and cost $46.

Some people plant by the stars. I plant with the weather. The 10-day forecast for my location shows highs through March 20 of 73, 73, 61, 63, 51, 60, 65, 62, 59, and 57, and lows of 51, 49, 47, 45, 40, 43, 45, 44, 35, and 33. There are five rainy days ahead, with a total of about 1.5 inches of rain during the five-day rainy spell. That’s planting weather for cool-weather vegetables.

I’m going to sow radishes and some leaf crops from seed and set out some onion sets in the open garden. I’ve also bought a few cabbage plants. In the little greenhouse, I’ll start some things from seed (in peat cups) that should be safe to move into the garden around April 15. I’m also starting parsley and maybe some other herbs in the garden soil inside the little greenhouse. I’ll dismantle and move the greenhouse once the weather is warmer.

Several years ago, I grew an incredible crop of celery from seeds that I had started indoors. Celery is said to be hard to grow in this area, but I’ve never seen more beautiful celery. I plan to start celery in peat cups inside the little greenhouse. The trick is, start early and keep it watered. There’s a limit to how much celery one can use in the kitchen, but if I’m lucky enough to have a good celery crop, I’ll juice it and mix it with herb juices and leaf juices for spring tonics.

The squeals of the formerly dominant

David Hume (1711-1776) from a portrait by Allan Ramsay

“Generally speaking, the errors in religions are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” — David Hume

As a liberal and firm believer in free speech, I am willing to take my lumps from what others say and think. But whether on principle it strengthens my case or weakens it, the pressure of my Humean moral sentiments compels me to say that I am sick to the point of nausea of hearing conservatives going on and on about “cancel culture.” In retrospect, it was predictable: If a day ever came when the dominant moral order was brought down and its flaws aired and challenged, that dominant moral order would squeal in a very unbecoming way, never doubting its own superior virtue, half-blind to its flaws and to the weakness of its own case (and therefore of its need to change the subject), and bringing all its intellectual power to bear on trying to turn the tables on its critics.

Dominance takes multiple forms. Economic dominance is one. Racial dominance is another. But we talk far too little about another form, moral dominance. All forms work together to preserve power and privilege. Conservative intellectuals can’t make a case for economic dominance or racial dominance, though that’s clearly what millions upon millions of conservatives want. But on the matter of moral dominance, they think they can slip one past us. If moral dominance is lost, then economic and racial dominance can be maintained only by naked power, which gets us awfully close to what the Republican Party has become.

Ross Douthat tries to slip one past us today in his column in the New York Times, Do Liberals Care If Books Disappear? It is, of course, a rant about Dr. Seuss books. There is no need to get into the argument about six Dr. Seuss books going out of print. Do conservatives have a point? Sure they do. I might even be able to spare a moment or two of concern about six Dr. Seuss books going out of print, but only after I’ve finished being concerned about thirty thousand other things that conservatives are blind to and don’t care about and don’t write about.

In the light of my own moral sentiments, which are not attached to religion, a big part of what makes Douthat so wrongheaded is his catholic thinking. Douthat also is a Catholic with a capital C, though his religion is secondary to what I see as his worst foible — love of authority and love of the old order. The word “catholic” with a lower-case c has a somewhat shaggy meaning in English, but that meaning has to do with universality and the safety of orthodoxy. I would spin it like this: To think in a catholic way means to safely think the way a great many others think, to have authority on your side, and to think the way people have thought for a very long time. In other words, dominance with deep historical roots.

The matter of moral dominance needs to be a part of the cultural conversation that we’re trying to have amid all the cultural uproar. Conservatives need to be shown how they’re trying to assert moral dominance against the moral claims of minorities, and thus block justice. Conservatives have even made “social justice” into propaganda dirty words. And minorities need to feel greater moral confidence in challenging the blindnesses of the dominant economic, racial, and moral order. Did some well-off conservative provocateur lose his or her job, or feel a new and unexpected chilling of his or her rights, after saying something offensive? If so, that’s truly a bad thing. I will put it on my list of concerns, in position 33,432. Right now I’m much more concerned about those whose rights have been chilled for centuries.

Is philosophical work being done in this area? Not much, as far as I can tell. Googling for “moral dominance” brings up very little. But it did bring up a short paper with the title “The Demise of Ethical Monism,” by Philip A.D. Schneider. Schneider does not occupy a position in one the great university philosophy departments, though he holds a Ph.D. from Duke. He is, of all places, at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. He makes a case not for overturning the moral order but for replacing what he calls “ethical monism.”

Schneider writes (italics mine):

“[W]hen we judge that another person’s decision is immoral, we are implicitly recognizing that this person has selected an ethical theory to justify what they sense to be a dominant value in the situation. We are saying further that our dominant value, and its supporting monist ethical theory, is being rejected.”

If I understand Schneider correctly, then I would apply it to Douthat’s column thus: Douthat is trying to preserve the dominant (and monistic) moral order by rejecting the moral values of a competing moral order.

Douthat is not by any means the only conservative intellectual doing that. Confronted with the atrocities of the Republican Party and lacking any principle with which to defend it, conservatives must grasp at any floating flotsam for their propaganda. It’s almost all they’ve got right now, which is why they’re so shrill on the subject of “cancel culture.” Conservatives are being told by conservative propaganda that their way of life is threatened. That’s how they see the challenge to the dominant economic, racial, and moral order. So why aren’t we talking about that, instead of six Dr. Seuss books? I’ll venture an answer to my question: Because they don’t have a philosophical, or a principled, or even a religious answer that will pass muster with thoughtful people. What they have left, and what they fear to lose, is their dominance.

How about a bit of Lent?

From the 1919 Church Hymnal with Accompanying Tunes, used by the Church of Ireland. Source: Wikipedia, public domain.

Yes, I’m a heathen who grieves for the loss of the pagan world. And yes, I think that St. Patrick was just about the worst thing that ever happened to the people of Ireland. They hardly knew what hit them, and over the centuries they forgot. But I’m also an amateur musician and organist and creature of this culture, and I know a good hymn when I hear one.

Earlier today I came across the image above on Facebook, posted by a political friend. At first I thought she must be a hymn scholar but had never thought to mention it. But when I asked about the source of what she had posted, she wrote: “Just a copy/paste from Wikipedia. My lent mini practice today was to pick a hymn and research it, listen to it, etc.”

Having seen this wonderful Irish hymn on paper, I had to hear it sung. That, of course, sent me to YouTube. There are infinitely many versions on YouTube, brutally murdered in every way imaginable. But one of the things I know as a musician and organist is that hymns are properly sung in only two places in the world: the chapel of King’s College Cambridge, and church congregations in Wales. The music-loving Celtic spirit in Ireland and Wales seems to have gone in two different directions, and it was the Welsh who perfected the choir. Below is a YouTube link to a congregation that sounds Welsh — Swansea, I wouldn’t doubt — though the YouTube page doesn’t say. This was the best version I found. It’s not properly attributed on YouTube, but I believe it may be a BBC recording. This congregation has been rehearsed.

Three things stand out: First, that everyone is singing. Most are even looking up so they can watch the director. Second, the vigor and symmetry of the director, making sure that no one loses the beat. Third, that the organist provides a long pause between verses, to give the singers a little time to catch their breath. Note also the time signature of this hymn, 3/2. Like 3/4 meter, this is a waltzy rhythm. Hymns with three-beat rhythms are in the minority. “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” comes to mind, in 3/4.

I do not know of a grander form of human collective activity than group singing. And of course group singing was one of the many things shut down by Covid-19. Those who either can’t, or won’t, put their lungs into singing with a group of other human beings who know how to sing don’t know what they’re missing.

The coveted card

I’m including an image of the card, because I think everyone would like to know what these cards look like. I’ve obscured identifying information and information that could be useful to counterfeiters. What the blank card looks like is no secret.

I have hesitated to post very much here about having gotten my Covid-19 shots, because it seems unfair to those who are still waiting. But I came across an article at the Washington Post or the New York Times arguing that it’s probably OK to talk about getting the shots or to post about it in social media, because it may reassure those who are hesitating about being vaccinated.

Once everyone has had a chance to get the vaccines, then the next big cause of disagreement is probably going to have to do with “vaccine passports.” On Feb. 4, the New York Times wrote a piece saying that it’s probably going to happen: Coming Soon: The ‘Vaccine Passport.’ And today the Times has another piece, Vaccine Passports, Covid’s Next Political Flash Point.

If the United States reaches its current goal of being able to vaccinate all adults by the end of May, meaning that all adults have had a fair chance at getting the vaccine, then it seems entirely fair to me, come the end of May, that those who have helped the U.S. achieve herd immunity should gain some privileges. There will be a huge outcry from those who have refused the vaccine for political reasons or because they believe in conspiracy theories. I will not be sympathetic to their complaints.

A mere card is useless. They’d be far too easy to counterfeit. If there is to be a vaccine passport, then there must be an international database that can be checked when traveling internationally.

I was curious about what kind of information is gathered when you go for the vaccinations and who subsequently gets that information. I have no idea if it’s possible to get the shots while refusing to give the information they ask for, and I have no idea whether there are people who would want to do things that way.

After my first shot of the Moderna vaccine, I received email from the health department in my state. So, the state I live in knows. Also on that first visit I was asked to show my health insurance card. I have a Medicare Advantage plan, so it’s safe to assume that my insurance company will get the information. Today, when I went for the second shot, I was asked if I have my Medicare card. I didn’t, so they asked for my Social Security number instead. From that I think it’s safe to assume that the information will go into a national database. No doubt the information in that database will have the same privacy protection as all other medical information, as required in the U.S. by the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

I don’t have a problem with either the state or national government knowing that I got the shots. In fact, I’m glad, because if there are going to be vaccine passports, then I want one. Plus, the government paid for all this. Plus they need all the statistical information they can get, for tracking the epidemic.

For what it’s worth, the only symptom I had after the first Moderna shot was a slightly sore arm for about three days. I understand that flu-like symptoms are more likely after the second shot. A nurse was stationed in the waiting area at the small rural hospital where I got my shots, asking and answering questions after the 15-minute wait was up and giving out a sheet of paper about what to expect and how to handle it. “And drink a lot of water,” she said. So far so good. But I’ll update this post tomorrow.

Update: Twenty-four hours after getting the second shot, I’m feeling a little tired, and my arm is a little sore. But there have been no other side-effects. Getting the two shots was altogether an easy process, quick and efficient. For a county as small as the county I live in, no doubt the logistics are much easier.

Tribes of Europa

One of my peskiest chores is scouring through the vast number of what I call “watchables” available for streaming to find something that suits my taste. Clearly my taste is strange, because there’s so little that suits it. Why do so many people want to watch stories that are set in places just like the places they live in, with characters just like the people they know (though the characters are usually quirkier and richer). Why would I want to watch stories about an office, for heaven’s sake, having finally retired and gotten out of them? I occasionally check my bookmark to The Decider just to get the creeps about what is currently popular. Wrestling?? Building yurts?? Baby-sitters?? A jeweller?? Yet another suburban sitcom?? Who watches that stuff?

When I come across science fiction, or anything that is not set in the here and now, I pause to consider whether it’s worth checking out. For a long time, watchables for those with strange tastes were ruined by the vampire fad, then the zombie fad. Fortunately now we seem to be in a post-apocalyptic fad and an Iron Age fad. That’s an improvement, to my taste. Maybe a better word than “strange” is “exotic,” since all “exotic” really means is not from around here.

“Tribes of Europa” is a six-part German series, (poorly) dubbed in English and streamable from Netflix. It’s set in 2074. A global catastrophe has killed off most of the population, and the survivors have divided into tribes. The plot centers around a family from a tribe called the Origines, who live a sylvan Iron Age lifestyle in a forest. It’s not terribly original, and I’d give it at best a B minus, but I haven’t been able to find anything better lately.

Much of what makes it interesting (and more exotic), since I’m an American who is always curious about Europe, is how “Tribes of Europa” reflects contemporary German culture. Or is it just Berlin culture? The details are edgier, coarser, and kinkier than watchables from the U.K., though series of this type always make an effort to shock us.

If there is a season 2, and I suspect there will be, I’m sure I’ll watch it. But now I’m out of watchables again, so it’s back to scouring through the dreck.

Rethinking the growing season

Volunteer cabbage

I should have noticed the possibilities for winter gardening long ago. I suppose it was that I was conditioned to think that gardening season ends with the frost or with the first hard freeze. But that’s not true. There are many vegetables that will keep growing, though slowly.

Certainly some winters are milder than others here in the Appalachian foothills. This was a mild winter, with a winter low of about 15F. The brutal cold that hit Texas and much of the northern and central U.S. this winter never got quite this far east. Some winters are cold enough to damage my fig trees. But I’m expecting a fine fig season this year.

There is an upside to warming, in the form of a longer growing season, as long as an increasingly unstable polar vortex doesn’t spill arctic air onto you, as happened in many parts of the northern hemisphere this past winter. So, winter crops are a bit of a gamble, but I can now see that it’s always worth trying.

The evidence was right in front of me this winter. I didn’t plant fall greens and turnips. But the neighbors did, and their garden was green all winter. I had mustard greens from their garden in December. Just two days ago, the neighbors pulled all their turnips before doing their first spring plowing. They brought me a bag full of very fine looking turnips.

All winter long I admired a mustard plant growing behind the step on the side porch. My guess is that, last spring, when Ken was sitting on the porch in the morning sun, sorting seeds, he dropped some mustard seeds. The mustard plant got only morning sun on the eastern side of the house, but it flourished all winter. I also had a winter cabbage plant. I often throw the stalky remnants of cabbages under the rhododenron bush on the north side of the house, because Mrs. Squirrel loves cabbage stalks. My guess is that a cabbage stalk, with plenty of moisture available, put down roots and sent up leaves. I will leave it there and see if it makes a cabbage head this spring.

All of these observations show me that, not only are some things willing to grow in the winter. They’re eager to grow.

To get an earlier start with the garden this year, I’ve bought a cold frame, which I plant to set up around March 15. I’ll have photos of that project when the time comes. My resolutions for better gardening this year include extending the growing season both in the spring and the fall. I get burned out by summer gardening, overwhelmed by heat, humidity, and weeds. But this year, I resolve to get back into the garden in time to start a fall and winter garden.

Another gardening resolution this year is to grow, and use, more fresh herbs, starting them in the cold frame. I plan to focus on herbs that can go into pestos — lots of basil, of course, but also parsley, dill, and cilantro. I could easily become a pesto fanatic. There are many YouTube videos on making pesto in which cooks swear that pestos are better when made the old-fashioned way — with a mortar and pestle rather than a food processor. That’s something I have to try. Certainly garlic is not really garlic unless it’s crushed rather than chopped. I’ve got to discover whether that’s also the case with basil.

The long-range weather forecast here calls for a mild, wet March. That sounds perfect for getting an early start in the garden.

The mortar and pestle, by the way, came from Amazon and is made of granite. It was the biggest mortar I could find on Amazon, 7.1 inches in diameter.

Volunteer mustard

One of the turnips the neighbors gave me

A new mortar and pestle for pesto

Who, and what, deserve our attention now?

If you ask me, boring government is the best kind of government, though, judging by the grin on his face, Biden is far from bored by rides on Marine 1. White House photo.

Scott Rosenberg has a very good article at Axios this morning: After Trump, the attention economy deflates. Rosenberg writes, “Donald Trump used social media to provoke and distract Americans around the clock, rewiring the country’s nervous system…. Now we’re going to learn whether our fried collective circuits can recover.”

The article, I think, is a must-read. According to Rosenberg, those who want our attention fall roughly into two camps: those who want to keep ranting at us, making us angry, trying to scare us, and exploiting us; and those who want to change the norm, “believing that a pandemic-exhausted public yearns for simpler, straighter talk at lower volume.”

In the first camp Rosenberg puts those who want to continue the Trumpian pig circus, such as Sen. Josh Hawley and huckster Elon Musk. The Biden administration is leading the second camp.

Speaking only for myself, I’d amend Rosenberg’s words a bit. I’m not pandemic exhausted. I’m Trump exhausted and Republican exhausted. I’m sure I’m not the only one who burned out from checking the news two dozen times a day out of fear that the world might fly apart at any moment. We knew that we were being exploited, we knew it was getting to our mental health, and we knew that the attention industry was taking it to the bank.

My morning routine, with coffee, was (and still is, for the moment) to make the rounds of a fairly long list of web sites to get a feel for what’s going on — the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, The Atlantic, the New Republic, Axios, Politico, Salon, the Guardian, Vox, New York Magazine, the Irish Times, Herald Scotland, the Economist, and even Huffington Post. I get zero percent of my news from apps and social media, though Heather Cox Richardson’s daily dispatches on Facebook have been a must-read for many months. Also on Facebook I regularly check the work of a former colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, Debra Saunders, who is now a White House correspondent for the Las Vegas Review Journal. Debra’s work is a way of checking the thinking of those who are still Republicans but who have preserved some ability to reason. Many of the comments, though, were from Trumpian zombies. It took Debra a long time to abandon Trump and to stop writing confirmation bias for Trumpers, but she seems to have finally done it, and she’s taking heat for it from those who remain addicted to the Trump pig circus. “Biden might also put Sominex out of business,” wrote one commenter, as though that’s a criticism rather than a compliment. I’m guessing that Debra finds herself in a rough spot right now — going with principle and reason at the risk of losing readers who aren’t getting their red meat anymore.

Twitter has proven itself to be a big part of the problem. The idea that anything useful in public affairs can be said in 140 (or 280) characters was a dangerous idea from the start. Trump proved how easily Twitter can be exploited as an instrument of low-information, highly inflammatory propaganda. A better world would abandon Twitter. If President Biden uses Twitter, I’m not aware of it.

Another thing that needs to be abandoned is the idea that apps are designed to exploit, the idea of “news feeds,” as though news is something to be chosen for us and then fed to us after we’ve been captured in an app. I never fell for that. I feed myself, which is why I use a web browser, bookmarks, and links and spend very little time in apps. Axios has written about this, too: Publishers see new life in the old open web. But some of us, refusing to be captured, never left “the old open web.”

It’s clear that even news sites that merit trust are struggling for material post-Trump. I’m seeing a lot more of the kind of material that is typical of Huffington Post — television, new chicken sandwiches, royalty news, celebrity news, and the latest trends in relationships.

Rosenberg writes in the Axios piece: “Team Biden isn’t the only force trying to downshift the public conversation…. The new wave of subscription-based newsletter and podcast enterprises aims to put media creation on a less fickle footing, funded by longer-term commitments from readers rather than volume-driven ad revenue.”

The key word there is “subscription.” As I rethink my media diet, I’m not willing to pay just anyone for news, but I’m willing to continue to pay the New York Times and the Washington Post. And I’ll probably continue to check some clickbait sites such as Huffington Post, for the same reason that I sometimes watch the ABC evening news — because I want to see what people are consuming and what kind of information low-information types are working with. (I draw the line at watching Fox News, just because brazen propaganda and Republican red meat are so damaging to one’s health, no matter where one is on the political spectrum.)

But, as choosy and news-savvy as I am as an old newspaperman, I realize that I’m not in control. What matters most is what happens next in what Rosenberg calls the attention economy. Surely we can assume that a media divide will continue to exploit the political divide. We high-information types will continue to have good sources of news and commentary, especially if we’re willing to pay for it. For the news to be more boring would be thrilling, in a paradoxical sort of way. As for those who love a pig circus, we can hope that hard times are on the way, since it seems very unlikely that a Josh Hawley, or an Elon Musk, or a Marjorie Taylor Green, will ever be able to out-pig the greatest pig in American history, Donald Trump.

If I had my way, the news hereafter would be much more boring, and all those movies and series available for streaming would be less so.

Not for squeamish readers

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Bantam Spectra, 1992. 608 pages.

The title is a warning: This book is going to be about doom. To avoid spoilers, all the reader should know before starting the book is that it’s about time travel to the 14th Century, and that the plot has to do with the plague. If the Covid-19 lockdown has got you down, this book won’t be good for your mental health. Despite its flaws, Doomsday Book has earned its place in the apocalyptic section of everyone’s bookshelves.

I considered flinging this book several times, even after I was a few hundred pages into its considerable length. Connie Willis, who is one of a small group of our most competent living science fiction writers, ought to know better than to let a novel drag along so slowly for 400 pages, the first two-thirds of the book. This novel won both the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1992, and Connie Willis was named a grandmaster of Science Fiction Writers of America in 2011. She (and her editor) should have realized that such weak or non-existent subplots are not enough to keep the reader engaged for a long, slow 404 pages until the plot is finally off and running. One Amazon reviewer writes, “I finally couldn’t take it anymore and simply gave up.” I stuck with it, because many of the characters are appealing, and because I fell under the spell of her Oxford and medieval atmosphere.

It would be easier to review this book by dividing it into two parts.

The first two-thirds: Almost all the scenes are too long. Almost all the conversations include some pitter-patter. Rather than strong subplots presenting obstacles to the characters’ striving, the obstacles (of which there are a great many) are rarely more than frustrating and meaningless little aggravations — somebody can’t remember something, or someone is on vacation and can’t be found, or a petty official forbids something, or the weather gets in the way. Sometimes the pettiness has the feel of slapstick. But Willis does have a pretty good sense of humor, and that helps. This meandering is not a total loss, though. By the time we’re 400 pages in, a lot of good character development has gotten done, and the scene-setting is excellent even when it is suffocating. A romp around medieval England would have been fun and easier to write, but Willis rightly chooses to keep the characters in one place, locked down, in the dark about their circumstances, miserable, often crossways with each other. After all, the plague is not something that one goes questing for. The plague comes and finds you, even if you try to hide.

I give Willis high marks for her theology, a subject that is bound to come up in a story in which there are last rites, lots of Latin, graveyards, and so many church bells. I also would give Willis high marks as a psychologist, as she makes the point that certain types of people will be with us in any century — the noble few, the hordes of the ordinary, and those who specialize in being insufferable.

The last third: With the key to the plot revealed at last (not that it was hard to figure out), the story is off and running. The slow investment in characterization and setting pays its dividends. The level of danger escalates rapidly. The misery of the characters starts to seem sadistic, but as Kivrin, the main character, reminds herself, “It’s a disease. No one is to blame” — except maybe God, an idea that Willis invites us to see through modern eyes as well as medieval eyes, and through the eyes of the noble as well as the insufferable. In spite of the slow start, Willis ends up weaving a spell so intense that my reality started to blur a bit. Partly it was the weather, in which my local atmosphere was like the atmosphere in the story — cold rain and ice, dark skies, a cat by the fire, masks, and not going anywhere if one can help it. And though the pandemic in the here-and-now has been nothing like the plague of the 14th Century, one never really knows how bad things might get before a pandemic finally starts to recede.

Would this novel be as compelling if read in the merry month of May? I don’t know. I’d say it’s a winter novel, if you can handle it.

Let’s hear it for the wobble

Illustration from An Introduction to Modern Astrophysics

Surely one of the coolest things about this planet is that it wobbles on an annual cycle. That causes the intensity of the sun to be about half as great in midwinter as it is in midsummer. The result is that life at most latitudes had to evolve to deal with the variation. Trees shed their leaves and fall asleep. Other plants produce seeds and then die. Animals evolved fur and feathers and warm blood. As the atmosphere and oceans strain to make up for the uneven heating of the planet (as required by the second law of thermodynamics), we get our wind and weather — more wind and weather than we want, often enough.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I like a bit a winter. That’s easy to say, though, for those who have warm clothes and heated houses. One only has to look out the window to see that most creatures have only their fur and feathers for winter comfort. But even as the polar vortex struggles to obey the laws of thermodynamics and spills arctic air where it doesn’t belong, I think that even the creatures outside the windows understand right now that winter won’t last much longer. The birds are grateful for the seeds I put out for them, but they’re clearly not starving. The squirrels look well-nourished. Even Mrs. Possum, though she licks clean the bowl that I leave for her most evenings at the edge of the woods, wasn’t hungry enough to eat the pimentos that had started to mold in the refrigerator.

And so the minor ice storm here this weekend was more entertaining than inconvenient, especially since I lost power for only about four seconds. In the eleven years I’ve lived here in the woods, I’ve started thinking of Valentine’s Day (I’m at latitude 36.423961) as the last day of true winter. The 10-day forecast looks good (though wet), and, as the wobbling back toward the sun accelerates, tomorrow will be 2 minutes and 8 seconds longer than today.

For several days now, the prevailing winds have brought rain followed by freezing rain followed by more rain.

A science project this winter was buying greenhouse basil at the grocery store, potting it, and feeding it with light for two or three weeks before turning it into pesto. The basil grows many more leaves, and the green grows deeper. The LED grow lights cost only $29 from Amazon (though I see the price has now gone up a little).

The garlic in the herb trough was planted in early December.

The birds aren’t visible in the photo, but Lily is watching the birds eat the seed that I spread at the edges of the driveway.

Homemade lemon shortbread with lemon icing

I didn’t go out in the ice storm, but a neighbor sent me this photo. There is no shortage of tractors and chain saws in these parts. Ice storms are to old pine trees as pneumonia is to the elderly. It’s often an ice storm that ends an old pine tree’s life.

Our own fresh taste of the 14th Century

The Covid-19 virus. Source: Wikipedia

By historical standards, this plague has been a mild one. So far, worldwide, about 2.3 million people have died from Covid-19. The most fatal pandemic in recorded history was the Black Death, which peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351. The Black Death killed between 75 million and 200 million people.

Covid-19 is not the first plague that seniors like me have lived through. Even today, the World Health Organization estimates that there are 10 to 20 million survivors of polio worldwide. AIDS has killed up 40 million people worldwide, and the peak year for deaths from AIDS — 2004 — is only 16 years behind us. Hundreds of thousands of people still die each year from AIDS.

There is much here to reflect on, including our vulnerability to the dark and primitive side of nature, no matter how modern we think we are or how dazzled (and coddled) we are by our technologies. Nor can we forget that the dark and primitive side of human nature is still with us. When I was a poll watcher during last year’s election, a woman who refused to wear a mask said, loudly, because she wanted as many people as possible to hear, “God’s got me covered.” And just this morning a former friend posted a link on Facebook about how Covid-19 was caused by a global “criminal elite,” including Bill Gates, George Soros, and the Rockefeller family.

Though I think there is such a thing as the arc of justice and slow moral progress, we have plenty of grounds to wonder just how much fairer today’s world is from the world of the 14th Century. Covid-19 reminded us that viruses are just as fatal to the high and mighty as to the poor. But the poor are more exposed, and they’re usually the last to get help.

I feel slightly ashamed to report that, three days ago, I got the first dose of the Moderna vaccine for Covid-19, because my state (North Carolina) is now vaccinating people over 65 as the available vaccine is allocated to risk groups. Meanwhile, teachers can’t yet get the vaccine, nor can younger people with pre-existing conditions. In the U.S., only 28.9 million people have had at least one dose of the vaccine so far. At that rate, according to the New York Times, we won’t reach 90 percent of the U.S. population until Dec. 15.

It’s surprising that I’m just now getting around to reading Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, in which a 21st Century historian time-travels to 14th Century Oxford to do historical research and accidentally arrives during the middle of the Black Death pandemic. Now seemed like a good time to read this book, the better to appreciate not only how some things never change, but also how much better off we are — or could be if we really tried.

Source: Wikipedia

Having mentioned the 14th Century, I should also mention Barbara Tuchman’s classic (if somewhat controversial) book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, published in 1978, which I have read twice.