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Paul Watson (right) and Matthew Conrad arriving in Pohnpei to reenergize Micronesian soccer. Previous coach Charles Musana, from Uganda, came along to do introductions.

Sometimes giving up on your dream lands you in the wrong profession. That’s what happened to Paul Watson. He wasn’t good enough to play Olympic soccer. So he tried soccer journalism, but it bored him. Then he and his friend, just for fun, started researching teams they could have qualified for had they been born in those countries.

James Parkinson reports at the WBUR radio show Only a Game, “From the time he was very young, Paul Watson had one dream: to play soccer.

” ‘My first passion was that I would play for England,’ he says. ‘You know, that was the dream. Despite not having any talent, really. No discernible sort of natural talent. [As] the years went on, it got less and less likely.’ …

“So he became a football [soccer] journalist who kept his dream alive by playing for a semi-pro team. But he says, that wasn’t enough. …

“In 2008, Paul Watson and his flatmate Matthew Conrad found themselves reflecting on their footballing dreams, wondering what life could have been like if they had made it in the professional game.

” ‘We would sit around in the evenings and kind of watch Brazilian second division football and sort of lament our lack of talent,’ Paul remembers. ‘And, one day, like a lot of fans probably around the world, we came up with the thing of saying, “Well, what team could we have played for if we’d been born there?” … We trawled through the FIFA rankings, got to the very, very bottom. … That was when we found the non-FIFA rankings — you know, places that aren’t recognized by FIFA. At the bottom of that was this island, Pohnpei.’

“Pohnpei: it’s an island in Micronesia. Population: just over 36,000. …

” ‘We sent them an email to the address that we could find for them. And that was it. That was supposed to be the end of it. But it was only actually when their head of their FA got back to us and said, “You know, I’d love to help you, but I’ve just moved to London.” ‘ …

“That man was Charles Musana, a Ugandan who had spent 15 years on the island of Pohnpei playing and coaching football.

” ‘And he said to us: “You can’t go there and play. It’s harder to get a Micronesian nationality than it is to get a British one. … Why don’t you come over and coach? The team’s basically disbanded, so come over and coach the team.” And I think he thought we’d laugh about that and go home. But instead, we said, “Yes.”  …

” ‘It was a good sort of 13 months ’til we actually were able to leave because, you know, we had to save up money, we had to give up jobs,’ Paul says. …

” ‘My long-term girlfriend — and now wife, amazingly — Lizzie, basically said, “You should do this. It’s something you want to do.” …

‘Crazy as it might seem, the thing I was most worried about, that gave me sleepless nights, was that someone would get their first,’ Paul says. …

“After 13 months of research, Paul and Matt finally booked their flights to Pohnpei. They were only planning to stay for three weeks to assess the situation. …

“Charles Musana, the man who proposed the idea of coaching the team in the first place, would come along to make introductions. …

“After 24 hours in the air, Paul and Matt arrived in Pohnpei.

” ‘It’s a U.S. protectorate, so it has a bit of a U.S. feel to it,’ Paul says. “Uses the dollar. But in many ways, it’s a tropical paradise. You know, it’s this incredible, shocking greenery and beautiful blue ocean. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s just such a friendly island. Everyone nods to everyone. It’s incredibly laid back. You drive at about 10 mph, and you swerve around all the potholes.’ …

” ‘We met the head of the Olympic committee in Micronesia — he’s called Jim Tobin, a really amazing American man who’s administrated sport there for years. … We were going down to the field every day and just seeing what level of interest there was.

” ‘And it would range. You know, some days we had a five-on-five kick around on this sort of flooded field. Other days, it would get up to sort of 20 people kicking around. Some days, we’d arrange everyone to turn up at 6:00 — they’d get there at 8:00. You know, it was a mess. But there was interest, and there were kids coming out and kicking a football who’d never done it before. There was some who were actually clearly really good.’ …

“When their three weeks on the island were up, Paul and Matt returned home to plan their next move. For Matt, that decision was taken out of his hands. He had gotten into film school — something he’d always wanted to do. But Paul decided to return to Pohnpei and take the coaching job.

“There was no pay. …

” ‘In a weird way, I felt more comfortable that way. Because if I’d taken on a professional role and commanded a salary, it wouldn’t have felt particularly ethical. Because I would have felt I was painting myself as something I wasn’t. … I was getting more out of this than they were in many ways. So it felt like a deal that made sense.’…

“When he returned to Pohnpei, he met a young man named Dilshan Senarathgoda.

” ‘He had been coaching this group of young kids. So I met up with him, and he was absolutely over the moon that I was there,’ Paul says.”

Read what happened next at WBUR, here.

Saltwater Beavers

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Illustration: Mark Garrison
“The mouths of the Elwha, Snohomish, and Skagit rivers in Washington State provide important saltwater habitat for beavers, salmon, and other estuarine species,” says the radio show Living on Earth.

One of the main reasons I like writing a blog is that I like to learn new things and to have something interesting to think about. I save up promising links, sometimes just because the headline looks interesting. Later, when I actually work on the post, it’s such a treat to read the whole story!

When I saw that there was such a thing as saltwater beavers, I thought, Really? This is a keeper!

From the radio show Living on Earth: “Until recently, biologists assumed that beavers occupied freshwater ecosystems only. But scientists are now studying beavers living in brackish water and how they help restore degraded estuaries and provide crucial habitat for salmon, waterfowl, and many other species. Journalist Ben Goldfarb speaks with Host Bobby Bascomb.

“BASCOMB: The eager beaver is an extremely effective engineer of its environment. Beaver dams hold back water that can be a nuisance to homeowners, but they create a complex system of ponds and wetlands that are a haven for numerous plant and animal species. …

“Scientists recently discovered that beavers are also happy to live in the brackish mix of fresh and salt water in coastal areas. And just as they help restore freshwater ecosystems, beavers could also hold the key to restoring damaged coastal wetlands. Journalist Ben Goldfarb wrote about saltwater beavers for Hakai Magazine. …

“Ben, how surprised were you to find out that there are saltwater beavers? …

“GOLDFARB: It was definitely surprising. … It’s just really within the last several years, thanks in large part to this guy, Greg Hood, a scientist who works in the Skagit river in Washington, that we’ve begun to understand that [beavers are] living full-time in these intertidal estuaries. …

“BASCOMB: You actually went to visit one of those beaver lodges on this Snohomish river in Puget Sound. Can you describe that? …

“GOLDFARB: It’s kind of this huge saltmarsh that’s scored with these little freshwater channels that freshwater comes down in. But then when the tide comes up twice a day, those freshwater channels are completely submerged, they’re inundated. So it’s this really dynamic ecosystem with the tides are just going in and out all the time. And beavers are actually building in there. So they’ll build these dams that when the tide comes up, the dams are actually completely submerged under water, you could kayak over the top of one of these dams and have no idea that they were beavers building there. And then when the tide goes out again those dams suddenly reemerge. …

[It’s] almost like the beavers are anticipating these tidal fluctuations and are accounting for them in their construction, and in this really sophisticated way. …

“BASCOMB: How do their dams in these intertidal areas affect the ecosystem around them? …

“GOLDFARB: What Greg found is that [these beaver construction sites] are hugely important for juvenile salmon, especially. You know when the tide goes out, those fish would get flushed out into these estuaries where they’re really at risk of being preyed upon by larger fish, by birds. … Baby salmon were three times more abundant in these beaver pools than in other habitat. …

“BASCOMB: Wow. So, they really serve a critical function. I mean, everybody likes salmon, right? The bears, the whales, people. …

“GOLDFARB: We saw this past year just how badly the southern resident killer whales are doing, the orcas in Puget Sound, and they’re essentially starving because there’s just not enough salmon. …

“BASCOMB: It’s all connected. Now, you write about how beaver ponds can help restore degraded coastal wetlands. And there’s clear evidence for that in removal of dams on the Elwha River in Washington State. …

“GOLDFARB: Two enormous dams had basically been there since the ’20s, I think, just trapping enormous amounts of sediment and blocking salmon runs. … A few years ago the government actually bought those dams and — thanks to pressure from native tribes — removed the dams, and opened up this huge amount of spawning habitat for salmon, so now salmon are swimming up river, past the former dam sites.

“[But] the river mouth had been starved of sediment for so long that it basically just flowed straight into the ocean. There was no real estuary there. … Beavers are really going into town in there. And by creating burrows and canals and dams, they’re just creating this amazing habitat complexity. They’re just opening up lots and lots of little spaces for all kinds of salmon and trout and other fish to live in.”

More here.

Photo: Becky Matsubara, Flickr
Because they build dams that shape the very environments in which they live, beavers are a classic example of a “keystone species.”

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2048

Photo: Kim Stevens/Cape Town Opera
Vuvu Mpofu in a production of Donizetti’s
Maria Stuarda in Cape Town last year.

Who can say why certain random things draw our lives in one direction or another? Did a Mozart aria and a DVD of La Traviata draw this young opera star into an unfamiliar career because her family loved singing? Because the music was so sad? Whatever the reason, Vuvu Mpofu overcame many obstacles because of that powerful draw.

Dalya Alberge writes at the Guardian, “Vuvu Mpofu had never heard opera until, aged 15, she was overwhelmed by a Mozart aria at a school concert. In her home town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, there were no opera teachers, the library had only one book on the subject, and her classmates were scornful of her interest. But Mpofu overcame all these hurdles: she taught herself to sing by mimicking the singers on two opera DVDs and, several years later, her talent was spotted by a voice coach.

“Now, at 28, the soprano has mentors in the world’s foremost opera companies. … Stephen Langridge, artistic director of Glyndebourne, said Mpofu had a ‘unique’ talent. … ‘People who sing very high in the soprano range can be very impressive … She keeps a humanity and warmth in the sound.’

“Mpofu has been taken aback by such accolades. It is a long way from the two DVDs – one of La Traviata and the other of The Magic Flute – she watched repeatedly as a teenager. ‘I come from a small town in South Africa,’ she said. ‘I never dreamed of any of this.’ Recalling the first time she watched La Traviata, she said: ‘It was overwhelming. I cried while I was watching it. It took my breathe away … I kept on watching, just mimicking how they sang, how they acted. That’s how I taught myself.’

“Mpofu went on to audition successfully for the South African College of Music at Cape Town University, a remarkable feat for someone with no formal training. A voice coach there spotted her potential and helped her get a student loan – although she has yet to pay it off.

“ ‘We were not rich,’ Mpofu said of her family, who loved singing, whether it was gospel, traditional music or choral. ‘I didn’t have things that other kids did … but my mum made sure that we always ate morning, afternoon and evening. At school, people didn’t bring lunches. You had money … If [mum] didn’t have it, I would just make myself bread. I was OK.’

“As she didn’t have a formal music background, her initial studies were challenging, particularly as her mother died not long after she had started. Nevertheless, she went on to study for four years as an undergraduate and two years as a postgraduate.

“Mpofu overcame other challenges. She was mugged by a man with a knife the day before she entered the International Hans Gabor Belvedere singing competition, opera’s ‘world cup,’ when it was staged in Cape Town.

“This was so traumatic that she nearly dropped out of the competition. But, feeling that music was ‘some sort of remedy,’ she sang an aria from La Traviata that got her into the final. She also came third in the prestigious international Operalia competition. …

“Mpofu said competitions had really helped her career. The Belvedere got her noticed by Diane Zola of the Metropolitan Opera, who became one of her mentors. ‘Entering competitions is a way of getting yourself out there to be seen by important people,’ she said. ‘Also, it builds confidence.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Mohammad Hossein Taghi
Ancient vertical windmills in Iran’s Nashtifan village. Proof that “the sun also rises and goeth to his downsetting, and there is no new thing under the sun.”

There’s been a lot of excitement in recent years about using windmills for energy, as if we invented the giants I see on summer visits to New Shoreham (below) before Iran did, Don Quixote, the Dutch, or Denmark.

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The website Atlas Obscura corrects the misapprehension.

“Located on the arid and windswept plains of northeastern Iran, 30 miles from the Afghan border, the small village of Nashtifan is keeping ancient traditions alive amid the winds of change. The town is home to some of the earliest windmills in the world, and the structures are still in use today.

“Along the southern edge of town, a towering 65-foot-tall earthen wall shelters residents from the abrasive gales. The high wall houses two dozen mostly functional vertical axis windmills that date back to ancient Persian times. It’s estimated the structures, made of clay, straw, and wood, are around 1,000 years old, used for milling grain into flour.

“The area is known for its uniquely powerful winds, and in fact the name Nashtifan is derived from words that translate to ‘storm’s sting.’ During turbulent winter months the handcrafted wooden blades whirl with a surprising velocity and power grindstones in a marvel of engineering and passive ventilation. …

“The tall walls framing the windmills both support the turbines, and funnel the airflow like the elliptical throat in a primitive windtunnel.

Unlike European Don Quixote-style windmills, the Persian design is powered by drag as opposed to lift.

“And since the blades are arrayed on a vertical axis, energy is translated down the mast to the grindstone without the need for any of the intermediary gears found on horizontal axis windmills.”

More at Atlas Obscura, here.

Video: Deveci Tech
Note that today’s hybrid vertical-axis turbines in Turkey are using the same principles to generate wind energy from vehicles speeding by. More on that here.

Diversity in Farming

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Photo: Soul Fire Farm
Run by a collective of black, brown, and Jewish people, Soul Fire Farm works to end injustice within the food system and offers trainings for people of color to learn essential agricultural skills,

I’ve been reading a sad book by Sarah Smarsh called Heartland. It’s about generations of her family on a small Kansas farm, and the subtitle tells it all : “A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” So far she hasn’t said anything about today’s young people returning to the land with enthusiasm, which blog followers know is one of my interests. I’m into the chapter about giant agribusiness taking everything over.

But I know there are more stories out there offering hope for small, sustainable farming. Today’s story is about an upstate New York farm that focuses on helping black and brown people learn agricultural skills and fight food injustice.

From the radio show Living on Earth: “Leah Penniman is the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and joins host Steve Curwood to discuss her new book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, and her journey as a woman of color reclaiming her space in the agricultural world. …

“CURWOOD: Tell me a little bit about your journey falling in love with nature and farming, and how it has led you to create your book, Farming While Black.

“PENNIMAN: Well, nature was my only solace and friends growing up in a rural white town. … In absence of peer connection, I went to the forest and found a lot of support and love in nature. And so, when I became old enough to get a summer job, I [was] able to land a position at the Food Project in Boston, Massachusetts, where we grew vegetables to serve to folks without houses, to people experiencing domestic violence. And there was something so good about that elegant simplicity of planting, and harvesting, and providing for the community. That was the antidote I needed to all the confusion of the teenage years. …

“I feel connected to the whole ecosystem, but the plants are incredible. They have these secret lives that we can’t see, or even imagine. So take, for example, the trees of the forest, right? There’s a underground network of mycelium that connects their roots, and they’re able to pass messages and warnings. They pass sugars and minerals to each other through this underground network. And they collaborate across species, across family. And so, when we tune into that, I think we learn something about what it is to be a human being and how to live in community with each other in a way that if we’re not connected to nature, we sort of lose that deeper sense of who we are, who were meant to be.

“CURWOOD: Now, your book is not only a how-to guide for folks who are interested in pursuing a path similar to yours, but it also, well, it has some history, sociology, environmental lessons all wrapped up in this package. Why did you add those additional stories and information in with your guide, rather than it, well, having it be strictly a manual?

“PENNIMAN: Well, I wrote this book for my younger self. So, after a few years of farming, I would go to these organic farming conferences, and all the presenters were white. … In putting together this book, I was really thinking about myself as a 16-year-old and, all the other returning generation of black and brown farmers who need to see that we have a rightful place in the sustainable farming movement that isn’t circumscribed by slavery, sharecropping, and land-based oppression, that we have a many, many thousand-year noble history of innovation and dignity on the land. …

“The raised beds of the Ovambo and the terraces of Kenya, and the community-supported agriculture of Dr. Whatley, those are to remind us that, you know, we’ve been doing this all along, and we belong. …

“CURWOOD: You have a waiting list of people who want to come to Soul Fire Farm and learn how to do this? …

“PENNIMAN: This was something that just surprised me because I thought I was just a weirdo out here, I was going to start this farm with my family, grow food, provide it to those who need it most in the community. And that was going to be it. And I got a call our first year from this woman, Kafi Dixon in Boston who said, you know, through tears, I just needed to hear your voice to know that it was possible for a woman like me to farm, and that I wasn’t crazy, and that there’s hope. Right? And that was the first of thousands and thousands of phone calls and emails to come of folks saying, ‘I need to learn to farm, I want to do it in a culturally relevant, safe, space. I want to learn from people who look like me.’ …

“We’re living under a system that my mentor Karen Washington calls food apartheid. So, in contrast to a food desert as defined by the US Department of Agriculture, which is a high poverty zip code without supermarkets, right, a food apartheid is a human created system, not a natural system like a desert. … There are consequences to that. We see in black and brown communities a very high disproportionate incidence of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, even some learning disabilities, and poor eyesight. …

“CURWOOD: One of the most intriguing sections of your book Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land is this explanation of how you can clean up lead-contaminated soil, which you find in so many places in the urban environment. You have a very practical guide as to how you can use natural plants to chelate, that is, to remove lead from the soil, so that it’s safe to grow food there. I don’t think I’ve seen that anywhere else. …

“PENNIMAN: There’s an incredible plant, it’s an African origin plant called Pelargonium or scented geranium, and it’s a hyper accumulator. So, you can plant it, you acidify the soil, you plant it and it will suck the lead out and store the lead in its body. So, then you can dispose of that plant in a safe place. …

“CURWOOD: And what do you think people of color lost when we lost contact with the land?

“PENNIMAN: Certainly not all folks of color, right? Right now, about 85 percent of our food in this country is grown by brown skinned people who speak Spanish. And … it’s a belief in West African cosmology that our ancestors exist below the earth and below the waters, and by having contact with the earth we’ve received their wisdom and guidance. And with the layers of pavement, and steel, and glass, and the skyscrapers, it’s harder to feel that contact. … When folks come to Soul Fire and get their feet back on the earth, what I hear time and again is, I’m remembering things I didn’t know that I forgot.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

Bridging Our Divisions

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Photo: Erin Clark for the Boston Globe
Lucy Wisson hugged her son, Giani DiTrapani, in their Port Huron home. Giani, a junior at Michigan State University, had always shared his mom’s political beliefs. Then in fall 2017, he went to college.

A recent Boston Globe story by Liz Goodwin (here) about how politics is both dividing — and not dividing — families spoke to a growing preoccupation of mine. Even the Dalai Lama tweets about it: how do we find common ground and things to love about people who think very differently from us? Next to climate change and inequality, that may be the biggest challenge of our time.

What struck me most in reading about the religious, politically conservative young man who went off to college and began to think differently from his mother was the mother’s tolerance and ability to change enough to stay close to him. I thought, Wow, I really don’t agree with all her views, but I do see that there are things about which she has an open mind.

We can always learn.

The Lothlorien elf Haldir in the Fellowship of the Ring says, “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but there is still much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps greater.” Now there’s a thought to ponder! That love in times of darkness grows more powerful.

So here’s a poem to help us all remember that we really do know how to appreciate things about people who are not like us.

Small Kindnesses
~ a poem by Danusha Lameris ~

“I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
“down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
“to let you by. Or how strangers still say ‘bless you’
“when someone sneezes, a leftover
“from the Bubonic plague. ‘Don’t die,’ we are saying.
“And sometimes, when you spill lemons
“from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
“pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
“We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
“and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
“at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
“to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
“and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
“We have so little of each other, now. So far
“from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
“What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
“fleeting temples we make together when we say, ‘Here,
“have my seat,’ ‘Go ahead — you first,’ ‘I like your hat.’ ”

Oh, my, oh, my! Bless all poets!

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Photo: NTV
Led by a grandmother, an amateur theater group in Turkey is raising awareness about climate change and the lives of rural women.

Wherever you live, whatever age you are, you have the power to do something valuable for the world. A grandmother in rural Turkey understood that from an early age and is making her voice heard.

The BBC garnered this story from NTV, the Turkish television news channel.

Dilay Yalcin and Krassi Twigg reported, “A 62-year-old grandmother from rural Turkey who rose to national fame with her all-women village theatre group is now set to stage a play raising awareness about climate change.

“Ummiye Kocak from the village of Arslankoy in the Mediterranean province of Mersin recently began rehearsals for her new play ‘Mother, the Sky is Pierced!’

“She told Anadolu news agency that she wanted ‘people to realise just how serious it is.’

The climate crisis is ‘not only our problem, it is the world’s problem,’ she says. ‘I am shouting as loud as I can — this world is ours, we need to take good care of it!’

“Ummiye Kocak has written plays for many years, always aiming to change perceptions. Her previous works have tackled issues from poverty and domestic violence to Alzheimer’s Disease. … In 2013 she won an award at a New York festival with a film focusing on the difficulties of women’s lives in a Turkish village. …

“Ummiye Kocak grew up in a conservative rural area, and only got primary education ‘by chance — as each family was required to send one girl to school.

“But she says her father was open-minded enough to take all his children to the cinema at a time when no other dad in the village would, sparking her love of drama.

“She says that when she first arrived in the village of Arslankoy as a young bride, she noticed that women there had to do all the work — in the fields as well as in the house. She thought that wasn’t right and told herself: ‘Ummiye, you have to make the voices of these women heard!’

“Her village doesn’t have a stage, so she gathers her performers under a walnut tree in her garden for rehearsals while they do their domestic chores. …

“People in other parts of the country want a piece of the action, issuing invitations on social media for the group to perform locally.

“One woman in Istanbul wrote: ‘I’m proud and honoured on behalf of all women every time I see you, Aunt Ummiye. … I hope all women lead their lives knowing they have this power like you do.’ ”

More at the BBC, here.