Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday

July 14, 2012

Woody Guthrie singing, Smithsonian Folkways image

Woody Guthrie singing, Smithsonian Folkways image – The sticker on Woody’s guitar reads, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”  Woody regarded music as a great tool of democracy and freedom.

July 14, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, folksinger, union organizer, chronicler of American values, troubles and change.

We’re already more than halfway through Woody’s centennial year — and what celebration took place at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub?  History slips by so fast.

Much celebration remains.  Get out your calendar and figure out which events you can join in.

Poster for the 2012 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma

Poster for the 2012 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah, Oklahoma

Wonderfully, a website celebrates Woody’s 100th:

Perhaps fittingly, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub hits the road again, today — off through Oklahoma.

In the interim, get out there, get the history, and join in the chorus!

More, Other Sources:

Page from booklet of Woody Guthrie sheet music...

Page from booklet of Woody Guthrie sheet music and lyrics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A song for our times: Arlo and Pete sing Woody

July 20, 2010

In the late 1960s and the 1970s, conservatives made big displays of singing this song.  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded one very popular version of it; it showed up often.  In those occasional complaints about the difficulty of singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” this song’s suitability for national anthem status was always raised.

Today?  I haven’t heard it at a Republican gathering in long, long time.  I’m not saying that it’s completely disappeared from the conservative song book — among other things, I don’t attend Republican conventions as often as I once did, but I don’t think I’d hear it if I did.  I am saying that people finally started listening to the song, and it’s been largely dropped from conservative sing alongs for political reasons.

And that tells us a lot.

It would be good to hear this song a lot more; it would be good if more people sang it.

Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger leading the congregation in singing Woody Guthrie’s “The Land Is Your Land,” from a 1993 concert at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Virginia (one of my favorite venues for any music):

(Arlo’s got a new release this year, featuring this tune.)


Drought: Heckuva way to run the end to global warming

July 30, 2009

“This is a hell of a way to run a desert.”
Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, during floods in 1983

A new Dust Bowl?

A new Dust Bowl? (Image updated January 2013; old links dead)

No, I’m not repeating the error of many who take every snowflake as bizarre evidence that global warming has ended.

I think we need to stick to the facts.

2009 may be cooler than 1998, one of the hottest years on record, but that in no way suggests an end to the climate crisis scientists have been tracking for the past couple of decades.

Cooler weather in New York does not offset the rest of reality.

Reality is we have crushing droughts in California and Texas.

California drought explained by USA Today:

FIREBAUGH, Calif. — The road to Todd Allen’s farm wends past irrigation canals filled with the water that California‘s hot Central Valley depends on to produce vegetables and fruit for the nation. Yet not a drop will make it to his barren fields.

Three years into a drought that evokes fears of a modern-day dust bowl, Allen and others here say the culprit now isn’t Mother Nature so much as the federal government. Court and regulatory rulings protecting endangered fish have choked the annual flow of water from California’s Sierra mountains down to its people and irrigated fields, compounding a natural dry spell.

“This is a regulatory drought, is what it is,” Allen says. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”

For those like Allen at the end of the water-rights line, the flow has slowed to a trickle: His water district is receiving just 10% of the normal allocation of water from federal Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs. He says he’s been forced to lay off all his workers and watch the crops die on his 300 acres while bills for an irrigation system he put in are due.

“My payments don’t stop when they cut my water off,” Allen says.

Although some farmers with more senior water rights are able to keep going, local officials say 250,000 acres has gone fallow for lack of water in Fresno County, the nation’s most productive agriculture county. Statewide, the unplanted acreage is almost twice that.

Unemployment has soared into Depression-era range; it is 40% in this western Fresno County area where most everyone’s job is dependent on farming. Resident laborers who for years sweated in fields to fill the nation’s food baskets find themselves waiting for food handouts.

“The water’s cut off,” complains Robert Silva, 68, mayor of the farm community of Mendota. “Mendota is known as the cantaloupe capital of the world. Now we’re the food-line capital.”

Three years of dry conditions is being felt across much of the nation’s most populous state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a water emergency in February and asked for 20% voluntary cuts in water use. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Drought Monitor lists 44% of the state as in a “severe” drought.

In arid Southern California, cities and water districts have raised rates to encourage conservation and imposed limits on use

Texas drought, detailed in the Dallas Morning News:

AUSTIN – The drought that has gripped Central Texas is approaching the severity of Texas’ most famous drought, the 1950s dry spell that lasted several years, Lower Colorado River Authority officials say.

But the current drought, which began in the fall of 2007, has seen more intense concentrations of high temperatures and less rainfall than the majority of the earlier drought.

“It was hot, yes, it was dry” in the 1950s, said LCRA meteorologist Bob Rose, “but it wasn’t crazy hot like this year.” Soil moisture is negligible now. And with spotty precipitation, “we haven’t been able to generate any runoff” to replenish reservoirs, he said.

“What makes our current drought unique is not the duration but the severity,” Rose said this week at a drought briefing for meteorologists and reporters.

With state officials warning of wildfire dangers, and water restrictions spreading rapidly across the state, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) issued disaster declarations for 167 of the states 254 counties.

Texas suffers more than California, across a broader area with deeper drought, according to the Associated Press:

According to drought statistics released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 77 of Texas’ 254 counties are in extreme or exceptional drought, the most severe categories. No other state in the continental U.S. has even one area in those categories.

John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist at Texas A&M University, said he expects harsh drought conditions to last at least another month.

In the bone-dry San Antonio-Austin area, the conditions that started in 2007 are being compared to the devastating drought of the 1950s. There have been 36 days of 100 degrees or more this year in an area where the total usually is closer to 12.

Among the most obvious problems are the lack of water in Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan near Austin, two massive reservoirs along the Colorado River that provide drinking water for more than 1 million people and also are popular boating and swimming spots. Streams and tributaries that feed the lakes have “all but dried up,” according to the Lower Colorado River Authority.

San Antonio, which relies on the Edwards Aquifer for its water, is enduring its driest 23-month period since the start of recorded weather data in 1885, according to the National Weather Service. The aquifer’s been hovering just above 640 feet deep, and if it dips below that, the city will issue its harshest watering restrictions yet.

Self-professed climate skeptics will argue that everything is hunky-dory and we can continue blundering along pollutiong willy-nilly because droughts alone are not evidence of warming, and so cannot rebut spot evidence of increased rainfall or local cooling.  Notice how they try to have the argument both ways?  Local weather counts for their side, but can’t count against it.

It’s more complex than that.  Much of the damage from climate change occurs in the upset of a balance in local ecosystems.  The Green Blog at the Boston Globe site discusses the subtle, ecosystem distorting effects and how easy they are to miss in the grand schemes of things.

A lot of the problem has to do with timing. About half of the water that recharges the [Northeast] region’s aquifer is from spring snowmelt, said [USGS hydrologist Thomas] Mack, allowing it to be plentiful to residents for summer lawn watering and other uses.

But global warming is causing the snow to melt earlier by around two to four weeks. At the same time, more rain, instead of snow, is expected to fall in the winter. That means the aquifer is filling up earlier in the spring.

The problem is the region’s bedrock aquifer can’t hold water for a long time – filling it up when it is needed the least and draining before the busy summer.

All environmental problems are complex, and global “warming” is massively more complex than any other environmental issue humans have recognized and dealt with.  Climate change deals with the entire Earth, and with the two great pools of fluids on the Earth, the oceans and the atmosphere, where the sheer physics of change are nearly impossible to understand, let alone predict.

Perhaps, as local conditions in more and more places demonstrate damages from climate change, skeptics can be brought around to understand that action is required even when we don’t have all the possible data points we’d like.


Public Lands insanity

November 16, 2008

Remember when Strange Maps “discovered” that so much of the 13 western states is owned by the Federal Government?  On the one hand, it was nice to see people paying attention to public lands in the west.

Public lands in a western state, with grazing cattle. Wild Earth Guardians image.

Public lands in a western state, with grazing cattle. Wild Earth Guardians image.

Public lands.  Photo from the Montana Wildlife Federation

Public lands. Photo from the Montana Wildlife Federation

At the Bathtub, we remarked on the history of the issue with a map that showed where the publicly-owned lands really are (the Strange Maps version only showed a dot in the middle of each state proportionate to the federal land held in the state.)  On the other hand, it was an open invitation for know-nothings and know-littles to jump in with silly ideas.  Remarkably, the post remained free of such folderol — until just recently.

None of these sites gives any serious thought to the idea.  None provides a scintilla of an iota of analysis to indicate it would be a good idea.

As one of the the principal spokesmen for the Sagebrush Rebellion in the early days, I want it known that I’ve thought these issues through, and argued them through, and followed the documentation for 30 years (Holy frijole!  I’m old!).  Issues with public lands revolve around stewardship.  Bad stewardship is not improved by a change in ownership.  Ownership change has all too often only led to worse stewardship.  Selling off the public lands is a generally stupid idea.

Certain local circumstances change the nature of a tiny handful of such deals — but not often, not in many places, and not enough to make a significant contribution to retiring any debt the federal government owns.

On the other hand, incomes from these lands typically runs a few multiples of the costs of managing them.  The Reagan administration discovered the lands were a great source of money to offset losses in other places, and for that reason (I suspect) never really got on the Sagebrush Rebellion band wagon — or, maybe Reagan’s higher officials just didn’t get it.

It’s troubling that such a flurry of stupidity strikes now, during a transition of presidents. This is how stupid ideas get traction, like kudzu on a cotton farm, while no one is paying deep attention.  Let’s put this idea back into its coffin with a sagebrush stake in its heart.

Bottom line:  Keep public lands in federal trust.  The Sagebrush Rebellion is over.  The sagebrush won.


Speaking of presidential transitions, who should be Secretary of Interior?  Stay tuned.


Update 2014: The original GSA map showing percentages of federal holdings in each state (including Indian Reservations as federal holdings), as published in Strange Maps when it was still active.

Update 2014: The original GSA map showing percentages of federal holdings in each state (including Indian Reservations as federal holdings), as published in Strange Maps when it was still active.

Build-a-Prairie: Online game for geography, history, biology

September 9, 2007

Build-a-prairie logo from University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota distance learning site has a game students can play to create the ecosystems for a successful prairie.

The prairie is one of North America’s great ecosystems and a vital habitat for many plants and animals. Over 98% of the prairie has been lost in the past 150 years—but some people are trying to bring it back, hectare by hectare. Restoring a prairie is a great challenge, requiring knowledge of biology, ecology, climatology, and even economics.

Are you up for the challenge? If you choose the right plants and animals, you can watch the prairie come to life before your eyes! Let’s begin!

North America’s prairie is divided into the tallgrass ecosystem and shortgrass ecosystem (plus an area in between—the “mixed grass” prairie). Which one do you want to restore?

This game fits neatly into geography curricula for a number of states, and also covers parts of the 7th grade social studies standards for Texas — if your state is covered by the tallgrass or shortgrass prairies as shown on the accompanying map, it’s likely your state standards include students’ learning about prairie ecosystems.

North American tallgrass and shortgrass prairies, U of Minnesota The game is fail-safe; it does not allow incorrect selections. It’s not a sim, really, but a basic introduction to what makes a successful prairie. Students should be able to master the game in 15 minutes.

Though developed way up north in Minnesota, the game and species are close to Texas prairies, too. The emphasis on soil points to some of the key errors made by farmers (encouraged by developers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) which led to the Dust Bowl; this is a good enrichment exercise for Dust Bowl lesson plans.  These games cover many of the requirements for Boy Scout merit badges, too:  Environmental Science, Wildlife Management, and Soil and Water Conservation, and others.

This game comes out of the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota; be sure to check out the Watershed game, too.

Watershed Game logo, Bell Museum, University of Minnesota

Update, October 2011:  No, I can’t find the game now, either.  It appears the Bell Museum took the site down, and trusting (and hoping) they wouldn’t do that, I didn’t pirate any of the images, nor especially the game.

Here’s hoping someone will put the thing back on line, somewhere.  If you find it, will you let me know?  I’d like to renew the links.  Several school systems went through this site to get to the game for classroom activities.  It was a good thing.

Update October 30, 2011:  Try the game here.

Blog for the environment: Blog Action Day, October 15

September 8, 2007

Blog Action Day, October 15: Organizers hope to have as many as 10,000 blogs writing about environmental issues and environmental action.

Blog Action Day 2007, the environment

If you blog, perhaps you could join in. If you read and comment only, feel free to urge others to join in.

It’s headed up by a bunch from downunder. U.S., Canadian and Mexican bloggers haven’t got on the bandwagon a lot, yet. As the organizers describe it:

On October 15th – Blog Action Day, bloggers around the web will unite to put a single important issue on everyone’s mind.

In its inaugural year, Blog Action Day will be co-ordinating bloggers to tackle the issue of the environment.

What Each Blogger Will Do

Bloggers can participate on Blog Action Day in one of two ways:

  1. Publish a post on their blog which relates to an issue of their own choice pertaining to the environment.For example: A blog about money might write about how to save around the home by using environmentally friendly ideas. Similarly a blog about politics might examine what weight environmental policy holds in the political arena.Posts do not need to have any specific agenda, they simply need to relate to the larger issue in whatever way suits the blogger and readership. Our aim is not to promote one particular viewpoint, only to push the issue to the table for discussion.
  2. Commit to donating their day’s advertising earnings to an environmental charity of their choice. There is a list of “official” Blog Action Day charities on the site, however bloggers are also free to choose an alternate environmental charity to donate to if they wish.

And that’s it.

A gentle nudge to a better planet. Seems like a good idea to me.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Meeyauw.

Great Wall of China crumbling

August 29, 2007

Nothing lasts forever.

From MSNBC comes an Associated Press report that the Great Wall of China is falling down in places, the victim of blowing sands. The blowing sands are the result of a Dust-Bowl-like overplowing spree after World War II.

Crumbling section of Great Wall of China, in Mongolia


1. Geography teachers should copy this story and follow it; soil erosion killed Babylon and several other civilizations in the Fertile Crescent (and Carthage, if we allow that the erosion was promoted by the Romans as a weapon of genocide); the Great Wall is one of those features that most people think strong an permanent. This is also a great insight into construction methods — the parts of the Wall that are crumbling appear to have been made of mud. Adobe construction, anyone (someday I have to finish that post).

2. World history teachers ought to note it for the same reasons as geography teachers. U.S. history teachers will want to keep this to compare it to the Dust BowlThere are also signs that humans may have significantly altered the local biota and, perhaps, climate, with their construction and agriculture methods.

3. China’s ascent in world position brings responsibilities it may have hoped to avoid, such as protecting the environment. Ending the encroachment of the desert in this case is a tall order — but if it can be done there, perhaps it can also be done around the Sahara, around the Namib, around the Syrian Desert, and other places where grasses once grew, but dust now blows. These sites are more common than one might think.

4. Santayana’s ghost: Didn’t China pay attention to the events of the U.S. Dust Bowl?

Tip of the old scrub brush to Jonathan Turley’s new blog — Turley’s a good lawyer with very interesting cases; his views are a welcome addition. Most of his blog simply points to interesting legal issues.

Quote of the moment: W. C. Lowdermilk, soil erosion

March 20, 2007

Soil erosion in Virginia, photo by W. C. Lowdermilk

Soil erosion in Virginia, photo by W. C. Lowdermilk “Figure 15. — A formerly productive field in Virginia that has been cut to pieces by gully erosion. About 50 million acres of good farm land in the United States have been ruined for further practical cultivation by similar types of erosion.”


From Conquest of the Land through 7,000 Years, by W. C. Lowdermilk, its first director, a soil conservation publication of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, first issued in about 1939:

When in Palestine in 1939, I pondered the problems of the use of the land through the ages. I wondered if Moses, when he was inspired to deliver the Ten Commandments to the Israelites in the Desert to establish man’s relationship to his Creator and his fellow men — if Moses had foreseen what was to become of the Promised Land after 3,000 years and what was to become of hundreds of millions of acres of once good lands such as I have seen in China, Korea, North Africa, the Near East, and in our own fair land of America — if Moses had foreseen what suicidal agriculture would do to the land of the holy earth — might not have been inspired to deliver another Commandment to establish man’s relation to the earth and to complete man’s trinity of responsibilities to his Creator, to his fellow men, and to the holy earth.

When invited to broadcast a talk on soil conservation in Jerusalem in June 1939, I gave for the first time what has been called an “Eleventh Commandment,” as follows: Thou shalt inherit the Holy Earth as a faithful steward, conserving its resources and productivity from generation to generation. Thou shalt safeguard thy fields from soil erosion, thy living waters from drying up, thy forests from desolation, and protect thy hills from overgrazing by thy herds, that thy descendants may have abundance forever. If any shall fail in this stewardship of the land, thy fruitful fields shall become sterile stony ground and wasting gullies, and thy descendants shall decrease and live in poverty or perish from off the face of the earth.

Egan’s Dust Bowl history wins National Book Award

November 21, 2006

The Worst Hard Time book cover, Houghton Mifflin image

Timothy Egan wins awards for his reporting and writing on a regular basis these days, it appears. He was part of a 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter team who reported on racial attitudes in America for the New York Times. Last week his book on the Dust Bowl won the National Book Award for Nonfiction: The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton-Mifflin).

This period is not well understood by Texas history students, according to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests of the past few years. Here’s a new book that should be incorporated into lesson plans for 7th grade Texas history courses, who will be coming into the Dust Bowl period sometime after the first of the year on most calendars.

Egan reads an excerpt of The Worst Hard Time for NPR here, and the site includes a link to the first chapter and other NPR stories on the Dust Bowl.

Other sources for lesson planning for this period should include Woody Guthrie’s biography Bound for Glory (book and movie), Steinbeck’s series on the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath (both book and movie), and Of Mice and Men (book and movie and more movies).

(New York Times book review of Egan’s book, here.)

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