Wednesday, October 19, 2011


October 20, 2011

Last Sunday, the New York City Community Garden Coalition occupied Wall Street. It was a good day to do it. October 16 is World Food Day, commemorating the founding of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization on that date in 1945. The FAO's focus this year in meetings and rallies across the globe was on the problem of swings in food prices caused by commodities speculation, a dynamic that threatens the hungry from the Horn of Africa to the South Bronx.

Community gardens, often dismissed as whimsical patches of green where claustrophobic apartment-dwellers do fantasy farming, play a surprisingly large role in maintaining urban food security. A research project oxymoronically named Farming Concrete, which tracks the amount of food harvested by New York City gardeners, reports that last year the 110 participating gardens produced about 87,700 pounds of fruits and vegetables. Extrapolate that figure to the 400 or so gardens that didn't submit data, and you're really talking food security, immune from price-swings.

The Garden Coalition is a good fit for the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its decade-long history of battling the Big Guys — in this case, Big Development, which for years has sought to bulldoze these little havens for more buildings. It's 99% vs. 1% in earth tones, and the Coalition, along with other greening groups, has succeeded in beating them back — at least for now.

On this bright and breezy autumn afternoon, Coalition members tagged up with a World Food Day rally in Foley Square near City Hall, sponsored by a group called Millions against Monsanto. Then, bearing their banners, they proceeded to march the several blocks to Zuccotti Park, the pulsing heart of Occupy Wall Street. The Financial District, which in times past was all but deserted on weekends, was teeming with people, most going to and coming from both the newly-opened 9/11 Memorial and Zuccotti Park, now as world-renowned as Cairo's Tahrir Square.

As the contingent made its way through the crowd, they took up the chant: "More green! Less greed! More green! Less greed!" Halted by a red light, they were approached by a man in a smart pinstripe suit and straw hat. "I agree with the part about the green," he grinned and walked away.

When the group reached the park, they staked out a spot, jostling for space among dozens of disparate causes: free education, full employment, justice for Agent Orange survivors, ending corporate personhood, Medicare for all, anti-Big Pharma, anti-fluoridated water, and of course, anti-bank everything. They became a tile in that living mosaic of solidarity, framed in a city block.

In the month since its occupation by Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park has become a functioning commune, with organic soup kitchens, first-aid clinics, book exchanges, impromptu schools on all subjects, and electronics charging stations — everything necessary and desirable except plumbing, now being passively provided by nearby fast-food chains. (No anti-McDonald's groups were in evidence.) Also of critical importance is the sign-making area, offering materials, space, and probably no little kibitzing for the construction of that most anachronistic yet most effective communication device of Occupy Wall Street: the hand- lettered sign.

The signs spring up in the park like mushrooms, and seem to grow ever cleverer through competition. They range from the general ("Mean People Suck") to the specific ("519 years of occupation through genocide. Remember the Native Holocaust."); from the rhyme ("Health Care, not Wealth Care") to the pun ("NYC Community Gardeners demand Peas and Justice"); from the hopeful ("99% + 1% = 100%. We are all one.") to the almost hopeless ("Why am I here? Because voting, lobbying, writing letters, lyrics, columns, and speeches hasn't done SHIT.").

Taken as a whole, the signs may describe the essence of the movement, elusive even to its originators: the yearning to breathe free. Spontaneously generating in cities all over the world, Occupy may be fulfilling a need for community and honesty (now euphemized as "transparency") that the dystopic machine of the "world community" and its octopus economy cannot. This is what Marx was about until Lenin reworked him.

The fruit of the movement may be more personal than political, more local than global. Its participants may return to their homes feeling more like humans and less like cogs. Rather than forcing the 1% to change their ways, many of the 99% may change their own, shaking off at least a chain or two of the anonymous social monolith to which all of us are enslaved.

It's about getting back to the Garden.

Deep inside Zuccotti Park on Sunday, a solemn-faced woman sat at a card table bearing the hand-lettered sign: FREE EMPATHY. She had no clients, but perhaps that was because empathy was free all around.

Photo credits: #1: Roger Repohl; #2 and #3: Magali Regis

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


October 13, 2011

"Look at how hard they're working," my bee-master Bob Jeffers told me one spring day a decade ago when I was his apprentice. Before entering the hives, we would spend some time observing the activity of the bees outside as they came back in clouds from their foraging expeditions, laden with nectar and pollen. "Do you know what they're thinking? They're thinking of winter."

Most of us are existentialists in springtime, crazy for the moment, living in the warmth of the now. Not so the honeybee colony. Its workforce of thousands is being deployed to ensure its survival during the five or so months here in the Northeast when there are no flowers and the bees remain inside, clustered in a tight ball, shivering their bodies to generate heat, and consuming the stores of honey and pollen they'd built up in the warm season. Our colonies here need at least 60 pounds of honey to last them to the spring.

Right now, in the fall, the colony is preparing for its long winter wait. On warm days, the foraging workers, all sterile females, are bringing in the last drops of nectar from late- blooming plants — chrysanthemums, asters, goldenrods, and their particular favorite, Russian sage. It is at this time that you see many of them on the ground around their hive, wings frayed, exhausted from their labors, struggling to make it home with their cargo one final time. Inside the hive, the queen bee gradually slows down her egg-laying duties from her summertime high of over a thousand a day to almost none by late fall. With no flowers to visit, the production of young halts until mid- winter, when she begins strengthening the colony for the spring. As the weather turns cold, the colony's energies become focused solely on survival; everything unnecessary must be eliminated.

And that includes the male bees — the drones.

The sole function of the drone is to inseminate a virgin queen from another colony; his duty fulfilled, he dies in the process. Other than performing this critical function — and only the most aggressive get the chance — drones are useless. True to their name, they do no work in the hive and just loll about, eating precious honey. Mating occurs in spring and summer; by the fall, those that are left are disposed of.

Standing in front of the beehive on a chilly October day, you may see the eviction of the drones. Bulkier than their sisters and with enormous eyes ("The better to see you, my dear"), they are easy to identify. They are escorted outside by the workers; seemingly confused, they try to return but are prevented by the guards at the entrance. Soon they will die from the cold.

As we witnessed this event some years ago, Bob Jeffers shook his head and laughed ironically. "It's Darfur," he said.

The reason we can take honey for ourselves is that honeybees are hoarders. They will not stop with their requisite 60 pounds but will continue packing it away as long as there are enough flowers producing nectar, enough workers to gather it, and enough space to store it. When nectar dries up in the heat of summer, foraging bees from powerful colonies will invade weaker ones. Mounting an assault like medieval soldiers storming the gate of a castle, hundreds of bees will fight their way past the guards at the entrance of a vulnerable hive and plunder its contents, leaving the abject colony to die of starvation during the winter. Beekeepers call this activity "robbing," and in apiaries of side- by-side colonies it can become pathological, with foragers even ignoring flowers and going after ready-made honey instead, swirling around the bee yard in a frenzy. Once robbing starts, it's difficult for beekeepers to stop it; the best they can do is to plug up the entrances to the victim hives, leaving just enough open space for the bees to defend adequately and to enter and exit for their own foraging.

I had this happen in my apiary this year. It's appalling to open up a hive and see combs that should be heavy with honey sucked completely dry. No matter how strong a colony appears to be, without honey stores it is doomed to die over the winter. In desperation, I feed the bees a sugar-water syrup until the weather freezes, and pure sugar after that. And hope against hope.

A few years ago, a beekeeper named Holly Bishop published a "biography of honey" called Robbing the Bees. Her title refers to humans' long history of taking the bees' food for themselves. Before the invention of the movable-frame hives which we use today, removing honey involved not just robbery but murder — the bees had to be killed to get at it. Today most beekeepers leave plenty of honey for the bees' own use, taking only the surplus. Holly Bishop does not mention the robbing that bees do to each other.

Do not be deluded by the common myth that honeybees are lovable models of altruism. Think of Darwin instead.

And think of our own pathologies of exploitation and extermination, long before and long after Darfur.


October 6, 2011

It's once around the world, once around the clock:

NEW YORK — The Occupy Wall Street movement, which a couple weeks ago was just another ragtag bunch of crazy kids camping out in a city park, has turned into something like a force. The numbers have swelled from dozens to thousands, composed of a growing array of mad-as-hell people frustrated by wealth- disparity and the apparent determination of a bought-and-paid-for government to keep it that way. Now you've got Michael Moore plying the crowd, and even some labor unions poised to join up. The demonstrations have gone from polite marches around Lower Manhattan to storming the Brooklyn Bridge, where 700 were arrested on Sunday for blocking traffic. Who'd have guessed that the tactics used in Tunisia and Egypt would translate so well to America? And who'd have guessed that the Tea Party would be countered by a grass-roots movement on the left for the first time since Vietnam? The Arab Spring turns into the Financial Fall. Now cells of the movement are springing up in major cities across the country, including Los Angeles. Is a viable third party about to emerge?

YEMEN — On Friday, the United States assassinated two of its own citizens, Al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, an editor of the organization's on-line English magazine, in a targeted drone strike on their car. It was a clean little operation that brought them to justice while avoiding the expensive and time-consuming alternative of apprehending and trying them. So the Wild West turns up in the Middle East.

The War on Terrorism was first conducted as if it were a real war, with military invasions and occupations. That was the wrong way to deal with an invisible enemy, but at least it was aboveboard and nominally subject to international law. Now the job has been turned over to the CIA, gunslingers who operate under the legal radar, with little apparent constraint by Congress and with the full support of our Nobel Peace Prize President. Terror begets terror.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina Republican Party announced Monday that it would move up the state's presidential primary to January 21, leapfrogging over Iowa and New Hampshire and trumping Florida's own leapfrog date of January 31, determined just last week. New Hampshire, which has an "us first" rule, may set its primary in December. It's checkers, played on a very big board.

In 1933, the U.S. Constitution was amended to move the inauguration of Presidents from March to January; given the increased speed of transportation and communication, a four-month gap between election and inauguration was clearly unnecessary. Here we have the reverse: the possibility of nearly a full year between the first primary and the general election, forcing even more money to be raised and spent on mindless and mind-numbing campaign ads. Common sense would dictate that given the increased speed of our own transportation and communication, we'd only need a couple months to select candidates, give them a hearing, and make up our collective minds. If the hopefuls actually took a year to refine their positions on issues, it might make some sense, but all that will be refined is the precision of attack ads.

TRENTON, N.J. — Republicans, dissatisfied with their either dull or dotty slate of possibilities and looking for straight- talking charisma, spent the last few weeks pressuring New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to throw his belt in the ring. Lawyer, county freeholder, lobbyist, U.S. attorney, and for just a year and eight months, governor: Now there's a résumé for President even slimmer than Barack Obama's was. Isn't anybody worried about the 3 a.m. phone call? Sensibly, he conquered the temptation, leaving the party to seek another savior.

Hey, wait a minute! Why not tap Admiral Mike Mullen? There's a guy with real experience, and judging from his recent Congressional testimony and media interviews, he's got straight- talking charisma aplenty. He just retired from the military and may be looking for something to occupy his golden years.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Bank of America announced last week that it would begin charging customers $5 a month for using their debit cards. What were they thinking? As if the American public were not pissed off enough at big banks (see lead story above), here they go nickeling and diming folks for taking out their own money.

Go ahead, Chase, now's your chance! Announce that you'll gladly welcome all customers from fee-charging banks, smoothly transitioning their accounts, direct deposits, and automatic payments, and maybe even giving them $5 a month for a year. You could gut your competition and increase your bottom line by billions in new deposits, and become the unlikely hero of the middle class as well.

NEW YORK — Andy Rooney delivered his last monologue on 60 Minutes last Sunday after 33 years on the job. Did you ever notice how the more things change, the more they stay the same?