©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules:  Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season

By Lillian Vallee

32. “Love the Wild Swan”

I am back in a small house in the Polish-Lithuanian borderlands. Life here in winter is a little harder than what I know at home in Modesto. I carry in wood and then build and tend a fire every day instead of moving a thermostat dial. I grind the coffee beans, spices and nuts in a hand mill; dry my washed clothes on an indoor rack; and shovel snow from the walk- and drive-ways. The nearest town is almost five miles away, so without a car, I am reliant on others to take me there occasionally or to bring me things I need.

It had been an unseasonably warm winter until the end of January, but now lakes froze and heaps of snow muffled the cities and countryside. I was put to the test immediately. On the first day back there was no water; a few days later, no electricity, and it didn’t take me long to run out of wood. The shutters helping to keep in the warmth got stuck in the wrong position. I had to wash with snow melted on a wood-burning stove, and if you ever hear anyone utter the phrase, “pure as the driven snow,” don’t believe it. Snow up close, it turns out, is pretty dirty (and alive with insects using the snow as an insulating blanket), and I had to run mine through a sieve to keep the little sticks and other organic tidbits out. The wood burning stove was a good place to cook, too, once I learned the fine art of making a good (but economical) fire, and the shutters responded almost immediately to a little desperate pleading (and a little irate banging with a broom).

Even better though was the immediate response from neighbors: delicious food, help with the plumbing, electricity, wood. These are people used to sticking together when a challenge presents itself and they love to solve any problem that comes along, big or small. Local kids helped, too, by showing me how to delight in winter by going down a steep hill on a feed sack filled with straw. A sack is a little slower (and safer) than a sled with less chance of a crash a la Ethan Frome. We also made snow angels in forest openings and built creatures out of snow. I made a great mother bear holding a plate with bread crumbs for visiting titmice and magpies. Her eyes were soulful: white mushrooms with large pupils made out of elderberry lozenges. Everything is alive: the ice in the lake, freezing and unfreezing, breathing through holes; the wooden house creaking and cracking with the rising and falling temperatures that also make the snow slide off the roof in sudden loud avalanches; the intriguing tracery of deer, fox, boar and mouse tracks in freshly fallen snow, revealing the far ranging movements of animals while we sleep, completely unaware of their hungry roaming.

If all this whiteness were not enough, there are the families of returning Mute Swans (Cygnus olor). I was surprised one morning to see them at the edges of a nearby, almost entirely frozen, lake. What were they eating at a time like this? Their usual food is water plants (95%) supplemented by some terrestrial (and domesticated) plants, fish eggs, the young of amphibians, and insect larvae. The swans’ long necks enable them to get at plants growing under water. Andrzej Kruszewicz, Polish bird expert, writes that swans are capable of “standing on their heads” in deeper water to get at the plants they want. They do not dive.

Swans are embodiments of bird monogamy. In a study Kruszewicz cites, there was no “divorce” in the 500 studied pairs of successful nesters. Of 1000 unsuccessful nesting pairs, only 1% parted ways. Swans return to the same nesting sites and will not tolerate another pair of any large white birds, including other swan species, in that territory. Intruders are violently repelled, even killed. If the lake is very large and overgrown, Mute Swans will occasionally nest with others of their species in loose colonies. In a Polish Radio III program on swans, Kruszewicz tells how the monogamy of swans can be upset by this kind of population pressure. The birds stop being faithful and begin to abandon nests. Privacy and isolation ensure lifetime faithfulness to one partner and the survival of the young, which have an 80% mortality rate in the first year. Poland has about 6,000 nesting pairs of Mute Swans while about 100,000 individuals spend the winter on the Baltic Sea.

The majestic swans of fairy tales and inaccessible lakes have undergone some disturbing behavioral changes, however, as water bodies stay open all year long (because of eutrophication) and encourage young swans to stay (and also to accept handouts from people) rather than to migrate to shallow sea inlets and bays. When freezes do finally occur, some swans get trapped. A local paper described how a flock was rescued by firefighters (!) after the birds became frozen to lake waters.

In one of his most powerful poems, Robinson Jeffers berates his poetry (“I hate my verse/Every line, every word”) because it cannot even begin to express “the splendor of things,” not “one grass blade’s curve,” not “the throat of one bird ruffled….” On a faraway hilltop, as twelve wild swans suddenly veer toward me and call overhead, I think, with tenderness, of the California poet and his despair. In the end, it is not how the poet feels about himself, about his inadequate tools, his “pale and brittle pencils,” his “bullets of wax,” that matters; it is how he feels about the world: “At least love your eyes that can see/Your mind that can hear the music, the thunder of wings/Love the wild swan.”

Sources: Robinson Jeffers 27 Poems, CD; Andrzej G. Kruszewicz, Ptaki Polski [Birds of Poland], Volume 1 & II (with CDs).

Ed. Note: Eutrophication is a process whereby water bodies, such as lakes, estuaries, or slow-moving streams receive excess nutrients that stimulate excessive plant growth.]

Nuclear power plant proposed for Fresno

(Based upon an article from the Community Alliance by Mike Rhodes.

Comments by Myrtle Osner)

A proposal to build a nuclear power plant next to the wastewater treatment plant southwest of downtown Fresno is being supported by Mayor Alan Autry and a group of businessmen.

This brought to my mind the proposal many years ago by the Modesto Irrigation District to build such a plant near Waterford. It was defeated, largely due to the efforts of Sam Tyson and others from Stanislaus Safe Energy and the Modesto Peace Life Center.

Mike Rhodes cites the dangers: the constant threat of a nuclear disaster. Remember Chernobyl and Three Mile Island? The radiation from the l986 Chernobyl disaster resulted in over 30,000 deaths, contamination of 1.9 million acres of arable land and 1.7 million acres of forest. To this day, food and drink are contaminated by cesium-137 in milk, meat, and crops.

The poor residents of Fresno will be the recipients of all the “gifts” the nuclear industry has to offer, since it is proposed to be built southwest of downtown. It would be within 50 miles of every major city in Fresno, Madera, Tulare, and Kings counties.

Not only are there dangers, but the group proposing this has no intention of paying for it themselves. Massive government subsidies are being proposed to finance this project. Investors aren’t lining up to finance the project. The group proposing it wants the public to take on the financial liability of their project, the risk of turning the Central Valley into a wasteland, and the death of our families, so they can become wealthy.

ACTION: Get involved: contact Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility http://a4nr.org/news-and-events/12.30-06-fresnonukeplant/?searchterm=FRESNO(805) 772-7077;  also the Sierra Club San Joaquin Valley.

Copies of the February issue of Community Alliance are available at the Modesto Peace Life Center. And online at http://www.fresnoalliance.com/home/magazine/magazine.htm. Help our sister Peace Center defeat this unwise proposal.

Cycling towards an elusive peace (meal) dividend or “What are you doing?” Cyclist responds


Yesterday I crisscrossed town on errands: bank, credit union, post office, health food store. When I left home the roads were dry, but I’d packed along my rain suit. Now with about a quarter of my average monthly food budget packed aboard and rain falling, I pedaled up to the third from last turn from home. I wanted to turn left, heading south down a narrow street. But a school bus had stopped there, red lights flashing and driver standing with a stop sign. The one car length between the bus and the intersection had already been filled. Cars in front of me presently either drove straight ahead or turned right at the four-way stop intersection.

I was the first to insist on turning left. Maneuvering towards the center line, I signaled and made a full stop short of the limit line. Not wanting to increase congestion around the school bus, I decided to hold that place until it had finished unloading. I motioned, inviting vehicles behind headed straight ahead or turning right to pass on my right. Most drivers quickly enough sized things up and courteously drove on. However the honking from behind sounded annoyed.

Just about the time the bus driver hauled in her stop sign and turned off the flashing lights, a driver pulled up on my right, window down despite the weather. “What are you doing?” he said, sounding more irritated than interested. Seeing a cyclist where he’d expect only cars, he glanced no further for what caused his delay. He pressed the gas and drove straight west before I could reply. Still, the question itches for response; so, my frustrated friend in your four-wheeled mobility cell, here it is.

I am waiting; the city wasn’t designed with a school close enough for these children to walk to. That means we all get to subsidize with our time the automotive scale of our city when their bus unloads.

I am claiming right of way on a public thoroughfare. But if you measure how much of that way I take and compare it to how much you’re taking, you’ll notice I wouldn’t be quite as much “in the way” as you and your fellow motorists.

I am carrying home groceries, er make that also fuel for my commute. Next to the weight of my non-motor vehicle unloaded, my week’s worth of grub is significant. Can you say that about a week’s worth of food in your vehicle, even adding the weight of a full tank?

I am demanding my share of the peace dividend we forgot when the cold war melted into a series of oil wars. The money I’m not spending for car payments, insurance, registration, car maintenance, and gasoline has allowed me to pay off my debts. After that, these savings allowed me to underwrite Uncle Sam’s war debt, earning me a few hundred dollars extra a year.

While Uncle Sam’s working hard to ensure you the best deal on your next tank of gas that his guns (and tanks, bombers, missiles, and aircraft carriers) can wrest from people whose countries are cursed with oil and keep India’s and China’s proliferating tailpipes behind yours in the international petroleum queue, I’m lining up with Chinese investors to shoulder the debt.

I’m striving towards a goal our country’s Presidents have offered lip service to since domestic oil production peaked: energy self-sufficiency. If there were a shred of truth to our notion of liberating the people of Iraq by occupying their country, our credibility would show in our preferring to conserve energy over dropping bombs. I can easily understand other nations’ viewing cynically this oil glutton’s occupying an oil-rich nation.

Despite my preference for higher gasoline prices, I’m exerting what pressure one person might to keep them low. You have that much less competition at the fuel pump because I’m here on a bicycle, not in a car of my own. Higher fuel prices encourage conservation. They also increase my savings. I choose conservation based at least as much on personal values as on finances.

I’m exploring how we might be living once the earth no longer sustains growing petroleum yields. Geologists widely agree such a day will come, though they dispute how soon. Peak oil production promises anything but oil prices peaking simultaneously. Don’t you think it’s wise that someone start learning how to live on less petroleum and be prepared to share the lessons?

In just a little more than a month (Connections readers mind, I’m writing this to deadline well in advance of publication), I am celebrating a full decade since divorcing my car.

That’s what I’m doing besides breathing like you. Thanks for asking. Now what are you doing?