Friday, March 23, 2012

Blue Ridge Parkway

Yesterday, I drove six hours of the Blue Ridge Parkway from the N.C.-Virginia border down to Asheville, North Carolina.

The Parkway--a 469-mile scenic highway built between the 1930's and 1980's--has been paved atop the Appalachian Mountain chain to afford its wheeled wayfarers with a windshield wilderness: forested valleys and ancient hills that can be ohhhed and awwwed at from the comforts of our cars.

Part of me felt as if I was driving atop a sacred burial ground, and that the rumblings of my tires were sure to have been disturbing the spirits struggling to sleep beneath. Part of me wished these Appalachian hills had remained unblemished of tar and tourist, so that the mountains could remain raw and vicious and inaccessible, radiating an uncommon beauty: there, but rarely seen.

Let the intrepid few have wild places so that they may be stunned by the sublime. And also, let the sedentary many view the hills from below and afar, where the mountains will take on an air of mystery, a wilderness replete with caves and mountain lakes, home to bears and beasts, seamonsters and sasquatches--all of which may not exist in real life, but they, if given a place to dwell, will at least populate and enliven our dreams. The quicker we Google-map the earth, the more we remove from it the opportunity for our native planet to evoke feelings of wonder and enchantment and love in its inhabitants. Earth, I think, should always remain partly unknown, partly undiscovered, partly unclassified, at least until we begin to push the frontiers of space, where we'll have a new galactic wilderness in lieu of the terrestrial one we've all but recorded and ravaged.

The country the Parkway meanders over--largely on account of the Parkway--is far from seeming wild, yet I can't deny how much I enjoyed the trip: the cavernous rock tunnels, the charming stone masonry of the bridges, the constant scent of spring sweetness, the cool dark air of the forest sashaying into my van's open windows, and the shadows of the forest draping themselves over the Parkway, a never-ending barcode of shade and sunlight.

I suppose beauty comes in many colors. Yes, I'll take a wilderness that I can never get to in favor of one I can, but I am not so haughty to spurn those places made accessible by the steel ax and dynamite stick. I'll look at nature from whatever angle it is offered, momentarily lowering my guard to give the planners and developers a chance to convince me that their vision was in fact inspired by the reverence they felt for a place that they thought okay to disfigure.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Forgive all student loan debt: Interview with Robert Applebaum

Credit: J.C. Rice
[This is a series in which I talk with experts on the topic of student debt.]

What if we got rid of all student loan debt? This is the question Robert Applebaum posed to himself in the midst of the housing bubble and Great Recession. Robert's answer: it would create millions of new consumers who could then stimulate the economy.

Among student debtors, his idea, needless to say, was popular. He had over 300,000 people join his Facebook group. Over 660,000 people signed his petition that expressed support for a loan forgiveness bill. He's been featured in The New York Times, Huffington Post, and The Economist.

The idea has gained traction over the years and he's been working with Representative Hansen Clarke (D-MI) who has recently introduced legislation to forgive student loan debt on the condition that the debtor pays 10% of his discretionary income over 10 years. If there's any debt remaining after those 10 years, the rest of the debt is forgiven.

I recommend watching Hansen Clarke deliver his speech below, if just because it'll make my interview with Robert easier to understand. (Clarke misspeaks when he says that only "federal" loans will be absolved; private loans, under this legislation, would be absolved as well.)

Here's my interview with Robert, along with an abridged transcript below:

Why did you start the organization, Forgive Student Loan Debt?

It was January 29th of 2009, a mere nine days after the inauguration of president Obama—a candidate who came into office on a platform of hope and change. And there we were, debating the Obama stimulus plan, which consisted of more tax cuts, corporate welfare and trickle-down economics. Frankly I got pissed at the terms of the debate. Here we were going back to the same failed policies that got us into the mess in the first place.

It occurred to me that if the goal was really economic stimulus then I had a much better, more efficient way of accomplishing that goal. At the time my monthly [student loan] payments were about $500 per month. It occurred to me that if my student loans were forgiven, I would had $500 per month, every month, with which to spend on ailing sectors of the economy. And if you multiply that across the millions of people who have student loan debt, you have a recipe to a bottom up approach to rebuilding the economy.

On your website, you point out that the bank bailouts rewarded bad behavior and haven’t done much to encourage institutional change, but wouldn’t student loan forgiveness do the same?

I readily admit that there is a moral hazard inherent in what I proposed: that future generations would expect to get bailed out because we were bailed out. That is a perfectly legitimate concern. My point is that amassing massive amounts of debt and placing that debt on the shoulders of those who can least afford it is not the only way we can pay for education in this country. Inherent in what I proposed is a strong belief that we need to fundamentally overhaul the way in which we pay for higher education in this country; and what I mean by that is public education—public funding of higher education. Education is not a commodity that benefits only the individual. Rather it is something that should be viewed as a public good and an investment in our nation’s future.

In the case of my friend Josh—he graduated with $66,000 in student debt. Over the past six years, he’s paid off about $50,000. So let’s say, in a couple years, his debt is gone and we pass student loan forgiveness legislation… Would he get any compensation or is he just unlucky?

Well I wouldn’t say he’s unlucky because he has a job that pays enough to let him pay off his debts. In that respect, he is lucky. No he would not receive a benefit from [Hanson Clarke’s] bill. But he’s not the one who needs help the most. Is it perfectly fair? No of course not. But nothing ever is. I pay property taxes yet I don’t have children. I pay Social Security. Who knows if I’ll ever be able to avail myself of social security. There are lots of things that everybody pays with their tax dollars that they don’t directly benefit from. The point is that this would benefit the country as a whole…to get consumer spending back up again so we can restore our economy from the bottom up.

Do you hold out hope that legislation will be passed?

I have hope that we’ve been successful enough in raising awareness, so that members of Congress will see a need to act proactively…I’m cautiously optimistic that Congress will have gotten the message that this is something we need to attack proactively. We cannot wait for the bubble to pop the way we did with the housing market because we saw how devastating that was. Now... I’m a realist as well. I know that Congress doesn’t act unless they have to act, so chances are we’re going to have to wait for the bubble to pop before action is taken.

Previous installments of "Interviews with the indebted"
#1 Interview with $200,000-in-debt grad, Kelli Space. 

#2 Interview with Alan Collinge, student debt guru who wants to reinstitute bankruptcy protection for student borrowers

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Spring at Acorn Abbey

(The road to David's home is lined with flowering pear trees. They only flower for a couple of days a year.)
I've been living at Acorn Abbey for over two months, finishing up my book and working on a variety of outdoor projects.

Here's the Garden. The perimeter of the fence is 400 feet long. It's 8 feet tall, and you can sorta see the fishing line I tied across the garden to keep aerial predators from attacking the chickens. I mixed in a dump truck-load of compost, hundreds of pounds of organic fertilizer (chicken poop), several bags of lime, and a bag of powdered kelp. The other big project I'm currently working on is creating an irrigation system, which involves a makeshift dam in a nearby creek. So far we've only planted onions and lettuce.

We had a tragedy at the Abbey last week when Ruth, our Golden Comet chicken, passed away from an unknown illness. We buried her, and in her memory we planted a flowering cherry tree on her grave.

Patience is our last remaining chicken. Because chickens are social animals, Patience has had to find ways to compensate for the loss of her friends, namely by paying extra special attention to me: demurely rubbing her wing against my calf, stepping on my hands whenever I'm sitting in the orchard, and even holding still and presenting her tail feathers to me, coyly giving the okay to be penetrated. "She's in love with you, you know," David says.

The chickens are as much pets as they are egg-producers, so I can't help but feel sympathy for the poor girl. So it's our goal to fix our diminishing chicken population problem.

We tried to raise a few chicks on our own last spring, but they were killed by predator that had successfully broken into the coop. I gave the coop a thorough inspection, and found that a lot of the downstairs wire had rusted, rotted, and come apart, which probably made it easy for a raccoon or weasel. I decided to renovate. I decided to make it into an impenetrable fortress. So I removed all the old wire and triple layered some of the more sensitive spots with new wire, making sure to leave no gaps for predators of any size.

I also dug a trench four inches into the ground, filled them with rocks, and put even bigger rocks on top of them, to keep out burrowing predators. I double-dare any predator to try to break in. We will probably buy more baby chicks at the local mill later this spring.

Here are two of the neighbor's horses.

Holly, a local dog, is always eager to greet me on my jogs. She has unorthodox style of cuddling, in which she leans her back into my stomach so she can sit like a human as we sit-spoon.

The Abbey from the rear.

Squirrel scratching chest on deck.

Red-bellied woodpecker.

Pear trees in dusk light.

Pear tree flowers up close. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Weekly quote: Solitude

“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. ” – Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862, Walden

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." – Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882, from his essay Self-Reliance

“But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship. Of course friendship is the opposite of solitude; it means being with other people. But I’m talking about one kind of friendship in particular, the deep friendship of intimate conversation. Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others at the same time while you hang out in a friend’s room listening to music and studying. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude. Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person. One other person you can trust, one other person to whom you can unfold your soul. One other person you feel safe enough with to allow you to acknowledge things—to acknowledge things to yourself—that you otherwise can’t. Doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask. Feelings or opinions that would get you laughed at by the group or reprimanded by the authorities.” – William Deresiewicz, born in 1964, from his essaySolitude and Leadership

“There are lonely hours. How can I deny it? There are times when solitaire becomes solitary, an entirely different game, a prison term, and the inside of the skull as confining and unbearable as the interior of the house trailer on a hot day.” – Edward Abbey, 1927-1989, Desert Solitaire

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Writing about nature

For the past five years, I've read  42 books a year on average. My selections are deliberately diverse: I read everything from 19th century British literature, to the American travel memoir, to biographies, histories, and wilderness philosophies. Among my many literary passions is the book on  writing as craft.

Because the book I am writing (which I'm still editing) includes plenty of natural description, I bought John A. Murray's Writing about Nature, if just to pick up a few last minute tips. The book doesn't deal with nature writing as much as I had hoped, but it is full of useful quotes and tips about writing in general.

Here are some of the passages I underlined:
  • “The important thing, it seems to me, is not whether you keep journals, but, rather, whether you have regular mechanisms—extended letters, telephone calls to close friends, visits with confidantes, daily meditation, free-writing exercises—that enable you to comprehensively process events as they occur.”
  • “Toward the end of his life, Twain relied more and more on a secretary, to whom he dictated his writings in the conviction that this produced more of the natural, conversational flow. Twain believed that preserving the spontaneity of the spoken word was paramount, in part because the origins of written literature were in oral narrative. He realized that any piece of prose that could be spoken effectively would read felicitously on the page.”
  • Quote from author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph. I have spent many months on a first paragraph and once I get it, the rest just comes out very easily. In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the first paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.” 
  • “Above all, look for texture, color, lines, shadowing and movement in the same discerning way that an artist does. Search for those important details that make the scene singular. At the same time look for images that will make the scene familiar to your readers, both in the present time and in the future time (always remember to write for the future audience, for the person reading your book not tomorrow but a century from tomorrow).” 
  • “What many of us have discovered out there—as Peter Matthiessen did in the Himalayas, for example—is that you cannot escape human nature. The two are inextricably intertwined, and what our readers most hunger for are the connections between the two, the intersections which are revealed most clearly through dialogue and character.” 
  • “Metaphors are always more powerful than similes.” Metaphor: 'The full moon rose, a cream poppy over the fields.' Simile: 'The moon rose like a cream poppy over the fields.' 

From my own experiences reading and writing about nature, I would add this: Keep it simple. It's difficult for the human mind to form images of elaborately-described physical landscapes. Tell the reader the basics: that there are mountains and a valley and a river, but let the reader fill in most of the details on his or her own. Don't worry about details; worry about tone. If your tone is inspired, your reader will automatically imagine an inspired landscape. If your tone is gloomy, they will imagine something gloomy. 

Once we begin using complex geologic or geographic terms (precipice, escarpment, permafrost) and begin to name specific species of plants and specific types of rock (which the reader will most likely know nothing about and will therefore not be able to visualize), the reader will get confused and frustrated and bored. And I'd also say: be bold. The reader does not have the attention span for boring reverential, flowery descriptions. The metaphors should be juicy and fresh and grand.  

Some more general writing tips from Murray:

1. Assume that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.
2. At some point in composition, develop an outline or plan.
3. Write in whatever form you are comfortable.
4. Aim for concision and clarity.
5. Use words precisely.
6. Remember that the last word of a sentence, paragraph, or essay occupies a naturally emphatic position, and that what you write here will long echo in the reader’s mind.
7. Put actions into verbs and actors into the subjects.
8. Avoid too many modifiers and avoid intensifiers.
9. Write for the ages.
10. Describe people and places and things when they first appear in the text, or shorty after.
11. Use figurative language judiciously.
12. Vary your sentence patterns.
13. Put aside your essay for a few days before finishing it.
14. Whichever style you choose, master it.
15. Read the best literary examples you can.
16. Write from experience.
17. Do not share your work too soon with others.
18. Establish a deadline as early as you can and keep to it.
19. All grammatical and composition rules can and should be broken where circumstances dictate.
20. Watch your transitions carefully, for it is there that a piece can most easily lose its connectivity.
21. Defend the artistic integrity of your work as you would the life or reputation of your child.
22. Humble yourself before the text; put what is best for it above what you may personally care for in it. 

Other wonderful books on writing: Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg's Writing down the Bones; Annie Dillard's On Writing; and the granddaddy of all writing books, Robert McKee's Story.

If you have any nature writing tips, or writing tips in general, feel free to share in the comment section!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Interviews with the indebted: Student debt guru, Alan Collinge

[This is a new series of interviews with people who are in student debt or experts who have something to say about the subject.]

Alan Collinge went into debt. He took out a reasonable $38,000 to pay for his undergraduate and graduate degrees, but by the time he graduated, interest had caused the debt to balloon to $50,000.

Alan struggled to find work so he went into forbearance, which is a period of time in which the debtordoes not have to make payments (though interest continues to accrue). His debt had risen to $60,000 and Alan--still struggling to find profitable work-- requested another period of forbearance. Sallie Mae, though, put him into default. ("Default" is a nasty word for any debtor. If a lender puts the debtor into default, the debtor's wages can be garnished, the debtor can lose forbearance options, and late fees can be applied among other consequences.)

Soon, Alan would owe over $100,000.

Acknowledging the ridiculousness of having to pay almost three times the original amount of his loan, Alan tried to restructure a fair deal with Sallie Mae. Sallie Mae refused.

So began Alan's crusade to change the student debt industry. Until he and millions of other debtors get a fair deal, Alan has refused to pay back his loans. He created the group Student Loan Justice, and set out to learn everything he could about the predatory lending system that has ruined millions of lives. His research has been featured in The New York Times, The Chronicle for Higher Education, 60 Minutes, and he's written a book called The Student Loan Scam.

As a result of his research, he's become outspoken about the predatory lending system, noting how both corporations and the government profit when students going into default. Not only that, but the number of students defaulting on their loans is far higher than what the Department of Education says it is. (The Department of Education says the default rate is about 5 percent while Alan says it could be as high as 40 percent.) In other words, young people taking out loans are led to believe that 1 out of 20 graduates struggle to pay their student debts when it's actually closer to 1 out of 3.

Alan's solution? Reinstitute bankruptcy protection.

For more of Alan's story and ideas, you can listen to the interview here:

Previous installments
#1. Interview with $200,000-in-debt grad, Kelli Space.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Weekly quote: The goodness of work

“If any man, whoever he may be, is ashamed to work in public armed with a cooper’s ax and girded with a leather apron, I see in him nothing more than a slave of opinion, ready to blush at doing good whenever decent people are ridiculed.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1712-1778

“Temperance and work are the two true doctors of man. Work sharpens his appetite, and temperance prevents him from abusing it.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1712-1778

“The political scientist James Scott, observing a lively practice of neighborly aid among Southeast Asian villagers, concluded that the absence of modern technology made interdependence a matter of sheer survival. The fickle forces of nature thus triggered a counteracting human solidarity, which itself fed a yearning for togetherness that seemed natural. The process appeared to begin and end with nature.”  – Eric Brende, Better Off

“The body as well as the mind needs vigorous exertion, and even the studious would be happier were they trained to labor as well as thought. Let us learn to regard manual toil as the true discipline of a man. Not a few of the wisest, grandest spirits have toiled at the workbench and the plough.” – William Ellery Channing, Less is More, 1780-1842

“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” – St. Francis of Assisi, 1181-1226

“But is work something that we have a right to escape? And can we escape it with impunity? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so. All the ancient wisdom that has come down to us counsels otherwise. It tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis—only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.” – Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1934- 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Week at Duke

Last May, when I was close to broke, I tried to sell the van. I put it up on Craigslist for $2,100. After two weeks, I lowered it to $1,800. Finally, I dropped it to $1,500. One guy--from somewhere in rural North Carolina--asked me if I wanted to "trade." "No thanks," I said," I'm flying up to Alaska; I don't need another vehicle." "Vehicle?" he said."I want to trade my guns for it."

Alas, I turned down his offer and asked David if I could park the van on his property until I figured out what to do with it.

When I moved back into his house in late January, I was glad I still had the van. Apart from it needing a new paint job, it's in wonderful shape.

I know it's just a big hunk of metal, but a vehicle affords its owner a sense of freedom like little else. No longer must I hitch rides and depend on the good will of others to get around. No longer must I plan my travels according to the rigid schedule of public transportation. I don't need to be scanned at airports or sit uncomfortably in a narrow bus seat. Yes, I now have a big, ugly, sometimes costly possession. And yes, I'm sort of destroying the environment. But my goodness, how it all feels worth it when you get behind the wheel of your own vehicle.

I needed to get out of Stokes County for a bit, so I put the van in vandwelling shape and spent a week at Duke to visit old professors and enjoy the numerous library privileges available to Duke alumni.

Here's the van before refurbishing.

I went to a Goodwill and spent about $30 on clothes, linens, pots/pans, Tupperware, and miscellaneous items. That's my old sleeping bag.

Brand new hamper.

Water jugs, cutting board, pot and pan. All in all, it cost me about $50-75 to get the van in shape for comfortable habitation.

I paid a local $50 to watch my middle pilot chairs for the year. Keeping them safe has been one of the biggest pains of vandwelling. I think I may just discard them eventually. David had an extra curtain, so I cut it up to make it fit as my partition.

I parked the van in my old neighborhood, the Mill Lot on Ninth Street in Durham.

There used to be a big open field behind the apartment complex, but now they're bulldozing to construct something big.

Duke Chapel.

Duke has some impressive natural features, like 100-year-old willow oaks and magnolias.

In the basement of the library is "The Link," a labyrinth of high-tech classrooms and study areas.

There are many questionable usages of funds at Duke, including this video art.

This statue is called "The Scientist and Nature," featuring a camel and Professor of Zoology, Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. The sculptor meant to express the value of scientific curiosity. It says, more or less, "Tell me about yourself, Camel, that I may know myself."

Students camping for tickets in Krzyzewskiville for the Duke-Chapel Hill game.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

In the news

1. Interview with the Indianapolis Star's youth news network, Y-Press.

Some time ago, I was interviewed by four teenage girls--all young writers for Y-Press--about how to creatively come up with funds to afford college. I think it's wonderful that they're thinking about this and making other young people think about this.

2. Interview with "life-switch coach," Rebecca Tracy, over at her blog, Uncaged.

3. I wrote an article about Texas trail-riding culture for Go Magazine.