Sunday, August 31, 2014

Falling into Harvest

(Picture from here.)

It's harvest season on our little microfarm. Nanofarm? Postage Stamp Farm? That might be a good name for the place.

We have two gardens. The main one south of the house and the east garden where the turtles live. Yes, we have livestock. We grow turtles. And chickens, but the chickens give us less trouble. There's a long and sordid history on how we got into raising turtles but it boils down to not wanting the pet trade to decimate animals we like. Turns out from capture to pet store takes a toll on wild animals. So we got into breeding them to compete with the captors. But that's a long story for another post.

Besides, they love to eat slugs. The turtle garden is always slug free.

South of the turtle garden are a grape arbor and two fruit tree espaliers. Moving west we hit the plum espalier and the persimmon tree to reach the main garden. South of the main garden is a small grove of fruit trees planted this year. Moving further west to the south forty is another couple of grape arbors and the leek, scallion, garlic and green onion beds. Moving north from there, next to the house is the west espalier-- a Belgian fence style. Continuing north, behind the house, is the greenhouse.

Everything was hammered this year by caterpillars. We got one-- count 'em, one-- apple on the Granny Smith. We didn't even get many blossoms. Ditto the plums. We did well on peaches and pears-- though we had to harvest the pears early. A local nest of carpenter ants learned a new trick. The found a pear, ate a hole and proceeded to mine the pear through the hole leaving a husk. I have to find the nest. I have blood in my eye and no carpenter ant will be left unscathed.

We had a number of blossoms on the apricot and nectarines but no fruit set on the apricots and we got little on the nectarines-- four, to be exact. I think the same caterpillar problem.

We  have grape vines that are good producers: the marechal fochs and the concord. This spring I cut back both fairly hard and they seemed to thrive on it. Looks like we're going to get a good harvest. The marechal looks like it should be harvested in a week or so and the concord is just starting to purple.

For the last ten years or so I've had an impossible project I've been working on: creating a drinkable concord wine. It must be dry with a hint of concord but no trace of the evil solvent taste concord is known for. I've been having some success. I'm hoping this will be a good year.

The marechal looks to be a good harvest as well. In the last few years I've been in state of war with the yellow jackets. This wasn't helped by the size of the marechal vine. It had become so big that different sections matured at different times-- hence the major cut back.

We didn't have a good year for plums and apples as I said so I won't talk about the espaliers much. The persimmon looks to be a great harvest. The tree is laden with fruit. Of course, it's over a month away and anything can happen.

We moved some trees from the Belgian fence: two filberts and a mulberry. Both were just too vigorous. This is their first year in the new spots so it's a wait for next year scenario. But all the plants seemed to recover well in their new locations. We got a few mulberries but no sign of filberts.

This has been an terrible year for deer. For the first time the deer have decided the main garden, and the adjacent new fruit trees, are one long buffet table. We put up an electric fence a couple of weeks ago and this has discouraged them from the garden. The new trees are hurting. I'll have to put up a cage of some sort to protect them.

We had a good peach harvest but I got lazy and didn't thin them enough so some of the branches of the tree were just too heavy and suffered. We took the result and made peach fruit salad with melons from the garden and froze the remainder. A couple of years ago I made a nice peach wine. We'll see if I do that this year.

The greenhouse did well. We've had two large bunches of bananas that we're drying. The strawberry guavas are going to be ready in a couple of weeks. We've started trying aquaponics which has more difficulties than we perceived. Right now, the we're using goldfish for the fish part and growing vegetables. We've also attempted rice. Average rice yield in Missouri for the last five years was 6,676 pound/acre. That gives a couple of pounds a year for two crops. So we'll see.

Wendy decided that clawfoot bathtubs are the best alternative for our hydroponic attempts. This gives our greenhouse an... eclectic look.

Which leaves the gardens.

We got a good crop of cantaloupes and honeydew but not so great on actual watermelons. This year we tried putting down the black plastic and that seemed to help.

Wendy and I have been gardening at the house since 1993 and in Watertown for several years before that. Wendy's been gardening in New England since she was a child. So we have a good idea of what summer's are supposed to bring. Typically, it has been cool to the possibility of freezing up to Memorial Day. Warming to hot by the end of June. Hot through July and early August. Latter August if variable but by Labor Day things start to cool off. Normally, there's no frost in September but there is some possibility of frost by Halloween. That was the norm until about seven or eight years ago.

Then we started seeing a shift. First, there were wet, cool Junes. Then, we started seeing Hammer of God
heat waves in early May. The apricots would blossom up and then get hit by a frost.

The last couple of years we have seen the HOGs, wet stretches of June, hot Julys and, this year, a cool August. Lots of chaos. That's exactly what the global warming models say: more chaotic behavior. So Wendy and I are adapting like a microcosm of the rest of the world.

So, now we're looking at different varieties that can cope. Some of the heirlooms we've liked in the past can't cope with the variability over the summer. We're trying some new things. This year we're trying yacon, a Peruvian tuber.

We all have to learn to be adaptable.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Consideration of Works Past: The Door into Summer/Double Star

(Pictures from here and here.)

My two favorite Heinlein novels have always been The Door into Summer (1957) and Double Star (1956).

The reasons for this have changed over the ears. TDIS was not one of his most popular novels-- one critic suggested that this was a novel where the commentary by the narrator was the best part. DS, on the other hand, has been roundly praised over the year and won Heinlein's first Hugo.

TDIS is about Dan Davis, an inventor and engineer who is bilked of his company, his livelihood and his fiance by is friend and... his fiance. The love of his life manages to swindle him out of everything. He's about had it and is planning to take the Long Sleep (suspended animation) for thirty years when he bucks up and confronts his partner and his partner's wife-- the fiance mentioned before. They drug him and manage to put him in cold sleep anyway and he wakes up thirty years later.

Davis likes the future and manages to make a place for himself. But he discovers he can go back in time and rectify the situation. He does and then returns back to his new home-- the future-- via a second cold sleep.

Double Star has a completely different story. DS is about Lawrence Smythe, known professionally as The Great Lorenzo. Turns out there is a popular politician that has a resemblance to him: John Bonforte. Said politician has been kidnapped on the eve of an important ceremony for the martians. The ceremony must go on (echoing the old "show must go on" theme) so they hire Smythe to impersonate Bonforte for the ceremony. Eventually, this turns into Mother Night: beware who you pretend to be for that is who you are.

I'm not going to go into the plat synopses in detail-- that's what Wikipedia is for.

The two works had an interesting history together. TDIS has never been one of Heinlein's popular novels. I'll quote Blish as quoted by Wikipedia: "It is surely an odd novel that is at its best when the author is openly editorializing...." Since normally I don't care for the odd Heinlein authorial intrusion but in this case they were fun. But they weren't true Heinlein editorializing. Davis is about as apolitical as a human being can be. He's a good engineer who is swindled precisely because he doesn't much take notice of things that are not interesting to him. Several of the "editorializing" happens when people explain things to him. Sort of like explaining things to Huck Finn in Twain's work. The author may have set it up but it's carried by the character.

Double Star, on the other hand, had significant acclaim and won Heinlein's first Hugo. Several have suggested it might be Heinlein's finest novel. Smythe is equally far from politics as TDIS's Davis, but in a different direction. Davis is a quintessential engineer. He treats the rest of the world with indifference graded to annoyance. Smythe is a consummate actor. He views the world as a stage and himself as the main character. He is flamboyant where Davis is self-contained. Outgoing where Davis is reserved. Curiously passive in what happens to him where Davis actively changes things around him. To quote Wikipedia quoting Blish again, Blish thought Smythe was "only first-person narrator Heinlein has created who is a living, completely independent human being."

From this I take that Blish knew a lot of actors and almost no engineers.

I want to be absolutely clear when I talk about the span of Heinlein's work that I stop in 1970. I don't know happened to RAH after that but it wasn't pretty and I quit reading him.

I think there is an Evil Heinlein and Good Heinlein. Good Heinlein has all of the good characterization, clever prose, humor and good ideas. Evil Heinlein pontificates on how the world ought to be, makes the women characters too stupid to breathe and takes itself very, very seriously. A work has considerable show with Good Heinlein at the helm but if Evil Heinlein gets its fingers inside there's no hope for it. After 1970, Evil Heinlein is ascendant.

So I feel differently from Blish. I tend to like Heinlein's first person narrators better than his other characters. (Podkayne excepted. See here.)  Or, rather, I think Heinlein is best when working under constraints. This is why those works considered "juvenile"-- Red Planet, Tunnel in the Sky, Have Space Suit--Will Travel, Citizen of the Galaxy, etc.-- tend to have so much less Evil Heinlein in them. Since the point of view characters are essentially children or teenagers, the characters cannot be used to found Evil Heinlein wisdom. It is interesting in Tunnel in the Sky (Heinlein's answer to Lord of the Flies), the first and last chapters have Evil Heinlein in them but it is absent in the middle and largest part of the book. The middle part of the book is exclusively from pov's of the teens. A coincidence? I think not.

Double Star and TDIS have a similar constrained nature. Both protagonists are very limited in what they can perceive and understand. Because of this Heinlein is forced to treat them as human beings instead of possible channels for Evil Heinlein. Which brings Heinlein to use his powers for Good rather than Evil.

The books have both aged fairly well. As with most SF works from over fifty years ago they have to be viewed as more Alternate History than prediction. I wish we had bases on the moon in 1970. Both books have few female characters-- a place where Evil Heinlein particularly liked to get its claws wet-- so, for good or ill, that part of RAH is not fully expressed. There's a squishy bit at the end of TDIS that echoes the ending of an earlier juvenile, Time for the Stars that will make a modern reader cringe. One has to have a filter on to read a Heinlein novel with modern sensibility. I think it's still worth doing. Other mileages may differ. Double Star has no squishy bits.

Both of these books were written in the middle fifties. Heinlein was just breaking fifty himself. He'd had a really good ten years-- Heinlein's first published novel was in 1947 though he'd certainly been popular in the magazines before this. So you could say the novels between 1955 and 1961 were where he hit his stride. It's not surprising that these two books happened right then. Both were experiments in characterization. Both were experiments in narrative.

And both are my favorite Heinlein novels.