The Grace of the World

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“I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

–From “The Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry

About 18 miles outside the main gate of St. James Plantation, down 211 and a little more than five miles after it crosses Highway 17 in Supply, is a time machine. Within minutes, you’re in a habitat that looks almost exactly as it did two centuries ago.

You’re in the Green Swamp Preserve, a nearly 17,000-acre ecosystem managed by the Nature Conservancy. It’s one of the last remnants of a great longleaf pine forest that once spanned more than 90 million acres from Virginia to Texas.

The pressures of development took a toll. Today, the longleaf pine forest is less than five million acres, and the Green Swamp Preserve is one of the largest remaining contiguous pockets of the longleaf ecosystem.

The longleaf pine forest was an important resource basin as the U.S. grew rapidly in the 19th century. Longleaf pines produced tar, turpentine and timber (known as “naval stores”) for commercial and military ship production. The durability of longleaf logs, some as old as 500 years, was renowned. Many of the ships that landed at Normandy in World War II were made from longleaf timber, according to Robert Abernathy, president of the Longleaf Alliance and a resident of Duplin County.

In 1977, the Federal Paper Board deeded a large tract of land in the Green Swamp to the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation organization, which has managed the property since then.

The Nature Conservancy’s focus is on gradual clearing of loblolly and slash pine, quick-growing species introduced by the lumber industry. At the same time, it’s promoting more robust reproduction of longleaf pines, primarily through controlled burns. Fires prompt cones to drop their seeds and clear the ground of brush so the seeds can take root.

Today, Green Swamp is home to 14 species of carnivorous plants, including the Venus flytrap, as well as several endangered animal species, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, Henslow’s sparrow, Bachman’s sparrow and Hessel’s hairstreak butterfly.

The swamp is also home to alligators, fox squirrels, bobcats and a black bear or two. In addition, orchids and a profusion of other wildflowers can be found there.

Peak season at Green Swamp is just about to start.

“From April through October, there is a succession of different wildflowers blooming in Green Swamp,” said Roger Shew, a naturalist and lecturer in geology at University of North Carolina, Wilmington. “It’s like different chapters in a long book.”

Shew recently delivered an informative talk on Green Swamp to the St. James Birders, and his enthusiasm was contagious. “People from all over the world visit Green Swamp,” he said. “I once ran into someone from Germany who traveled all the way here to see a Venus flytrap.”

Green Swamp is also notable for being part of a recognized biodiversity “hotspot.”

In 2015, the North American Coastal Plain, which stretches from Cape Cod to northern Mexico, was recognized by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) as the 36th biodiversity hotspot in the world. To qualify, an area must contain at least 1,500 endemic species (those that are not found elsewhere) and have experienced 70 percent or more of habitat loss.

Preserving those natural habitats is critical to a healthy environment, Shew said. “Fragmentation of natural ecosystems is devastating.”

Visiting Green Swamp is a great way to while away a morning or afternoon. Take state Highway 211 toward Supply. About 5.5 miles past Highway 17, a small sign marks a parking area on the right-hand side of 211 (also known as Green Swamp Road through this area). Park next to a large pond called the “borrow pit” (so named because it’s where sand was “borrowed” to build nearby roads).

From there, follow the trail marked by red diamond tags on the trees. After a half-mile, you’ll enter a prime example of a longleaf pine savannah — a vast, open field of pines and grasses bordered by a thick growth known as a “pocosin,” a Native American word for “swamp on a hill.”

Now, here’s one of the best ways to experience Green Swamp Preserve and connect with the spirit of the Wendell Berry poem extracted above. When you’re in the savannah, stand still or sit down — whatever’s comfortable. Wait for the skies to clear of airplanes. Wait for the road to clear of traffic noise. Take a deep breath. Listen to the breeze through the pines, the songs of the birds, just as it was 200 years ago. Feel time slow down, and experience “the grace of the world.”

(This piece originally appeared in the May 2018 edition of the award-winning “Cat-Tales.”)

A Modest Proposal

 

border-security

As we enter the second year of the Trump presidency the debate about border security rages on, with the focus continuing to be on a building a billion-dollar wall. We’re in a standoff with no clear resolution in sight. It’s time to take a step back and get a fresh view. It’s an important issue to get right because it affects us all, from Washington to Wilmington.

Let’s start with an example from the past — Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The space-based missile defense system, widely mocked when it was launched, has now gained a measure of respect and could be a template for solving border-security issues.

Among other outcomes, SDI is credited for accelerating the end of the Cold War due to the bargaining leverage it gave the U.S. over Russia. Lesser known, but increasingly appreciated, is the wave of innovation that the SDI program unleashed within the Department of Defense and the commercial sector. It catalyzed order-of-magnitude advances in fields like electronics, sensors and detectors, computers, communications and miniaturization.

SDI was classic “outside-the-box” thinking, which led to widespread mockery by the mainstream media as a Reagan fantasy — thus the derogatory nickname, “Star Wars.”

But outside-the-box thinking — or outside-the-wall — is exactly what we need when it comes to border security.

We’re stuck in a 20th-century model — one could argue a Middle Ages model — revolving around variations of a Great Wall, or a “beautiful” wall according to its chief proponent. It would be anywhere from 30 to 50 feet high, opaque or transparent (maybe even with solar panels!), costing anywhere from $12 billion to $70 billion.

We need to move the debate about border security into the 21st century and take a more entrepreneurial approach. At my former company, Chevron, innovation was the lifeblood of growth. And every discussion about innovation usually began around a white board where all ideas were welcome — then debated, tested, referenced and tested again. It’s time to take the same approach with border security. Here are a few ideas to throw up on the white board:

Strategy first, then tactics: We’ve got the wrong agency taking the lead in developing solutions for border security. The Department of Homeland Security has many tactical talents, but the strategic thinking we need ought to come from the Department of Defense. DOD has expertise and experience at large-scale innovation (see SDI, above) and is continually looking at ways to expand innovation going forward.

The Defense Innovation Board established in 2016 is just one example of how it’s doing this. Comprised of DOD officials with senior executives from Alphabet, CalTech, United Technologies, Google and Instagram, among others, the DIB has made a series of recommendations on how to accelerate innovation across a variety of processes and platforms.

DOD ought to be given a seed budget and a short timeframe with the objective of developing technology-based alternatives to a physical wall — tools like drones, GPS, seismic imaging, advanced radar and others. Using the model of DIB, it ought to draw on the best resources it can from the commercial sector to fast-track solutions.

Let the market pay for the wall:As DOD, in partnership with the private sector, develops new applications for border security we should look for ways to commercialize the technology, licensing it to other public-sector or private entities. This will help defray the initial R&D investment and ongoing operating costs.

Be visionary, not reactionary: The wall as currently conceived is focused on stoppingsomething, not enablingsomething. That’s backwards. Border security should be focused on making immigration more stable, predictable and efficient — not choking it off. America was conceived as a “big tent,” where all are welcome. Border security for the 21st century, enabled by technology and guided by common sense, should be one of the poles holding up the great American tent.

(This piece originally ran in the Wilmington Star-News, 4/23/18)

Sentries

 

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We approach each one

excited and proud —

hydrants with caps of

green and orange,

waiting to be flushed,

exorcised of rust,

effluvium and an

infinite number of

microorganisms,

then examined and oiled.

 

Mute and present

sentries

 

After a time,

conversation –

effortless,

flowing from exhilaration,

arcs of

arcane, topical logic —

“When the Weinstein story

came out Scorpio was ascending,

which governs the reproductive organs.”

 

On that warm fall morning,

in a strange Southern place,

you realize that

wisdom & knowledge are everywhere –

you find light in the

strangest of places –

and that we are all

interconnected in a

glowing, breathing,

translucent continuum

of love.

 

We hold each other up,

aces back to back.

Names known,

we get to know each other,

testing, listening, watching –

we have small, different ways,

but are patient

with each other’s

 

The water,

like love surging from

the center

of the universe,

explodes from the spout

in high white arcs

blowing away loose pine bark,

refracting a rainbow,

spilling into a pond.

 

A friendship formed

around water, sun,

earth, fire

2017 Top 10

So, what a strange, unpredictable, frustrating, horrific, and ultimately inspiring year, right?

The horror is still strong in our memory (Mandalay Bay); so is the frustration as our politics lurched from one pseudo-crisis to the next. That old line by Yeats – “the center cannot hold” – once again came to the forefront, complete with some rough beast, “its hour come round at last,” slouching into the corridors of power, dressed in waxed green fatigue jackets, looking like the tail-end of a 10-day bender, bellowing in 140-character screeds and leaving the pavement cracked by all the dropped jaws in its wake. Half-way through the year, I started using the hash tag #YCMTSU because it was exhausting to keep repeating “you can’t make this shit up.”

So where was the inspiration? Well, everywhere if you looked around. This year’s Top 10 is extremely eclectic, perhaps reflecting the refracted nature of our culture, amplified even more by the ubiquity of the hyperventilating media-industrial complex. It was a year when you took pleasure wherever you could find it, regardless of genre. One of the best moments of the year, for instance, was a waiter Kit and I had for a lovely dinner in Charleston. In addition to introducing us to a great, unexpected new wine, he improvised a 5-minute dissertation on the history of Phish. It didn’t make the Top 10 list, but it was indicative of the kind of unexpected and small ways that inspiration snuck up this year. There’s a bit more emotion in this year’s Top 10, coming from a sense of loss and mortality, of transitions and shifting ground. As difficult as this year was, it helped a lot of us see more clearly and become more grateful for many things we’ve taken for granted. So if there’s any “theme” here it would probably be gratitude – thanks for the things we’ve lost and regained, for bravery in the face of loss and abuse, for joy and resurrection springing from the most unlikely of places. Enough already, here’s 2017’s Top 10:

 

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Gord Downie, RIP      For more than 30 years, Gord Downie was frontman for The Tragically Hip, until his death in October from brain cancer at 53. There are few bands and artists that established the kind of enduring connection that The Hip did with fans in their native Canada. And very few “rock stars” with as much humanity as Downie. It’s hard to overestimate that connection. When The Hip gave their farewell concert in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario the Toronto Police Department tweeted “Dear world, Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 p.m. Have a #TragicallyHip day.” For a quick immersion in The Hip phenomenon, check out the documentary on Netflix, “Long Time Running.” And just try not to cry.

 

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Grateful Dead, Redux     The deep well of the Dead continues to flow. We had two major releases this year, the excellent (and long) documentary by Amir Bar-Lev on the Dead’s history and (finally!) the release of the Barton Hall concert from 1977. This is the show that was entered into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress and it captures the band at a point between their psychedelic roots and their arena-rock future. There’s no such thing as a “best” Dead concert, but this comes pretty dang close. I confess that I’ve danced to this show, tubes glowing, late at night. And been happy.

 

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Diana Krall at Wolftrap/TajMo and Los Lobos at Wilson Center, Wilmington         We didn’t see a lot of live music this year, but what we saw was great. Diana Krall was timeless at Wolftrap, with a backup band of journeymen that could play Cole Porter upside down with their hands tied behind their back. Taj Mahal and Keb Mo were a cross-generational delight. Taj was the center of gravity, which Keb Mo duly acknowledged, but several times they blended together into something unique and deeply American. Los Lobos drew a paltry crowd in Wilmington, NC and their disappointment showed in the first few songs, but then their professionalism took over and they gave a master class in the great American songbook, highlighted by a raucous, loving version of “Bertha.”

 

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Stranger Things 2/Big Little Lies    These two limited series, one on Netflix and another on HBO, created their own worlds and we were glad to live in them. They allowed you to escape without being escapist. Added bonus: the Big Little Lies theme song, “Cold Little Heart” by Michael Kiwanuka.

 

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“Fix You,” Coldplay/”They Dance Alone,” Sting/”Eyes of the World,” Grateful Dead/”Bouncing Around the Room,” Phish    How to feel happier when you only have 45 minutes.

 

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“Jungle,” Tash Sultana    The version on her EP is great, but the passion and ingenuity she shows in her one-woman band version on YouTube is a thing to behold. Lo-fi, emotional, simple and complex at the same time. How many young girls will this inspire to pick up a guitar and turn their caps around? A bunch, I bet.

 

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The Force, a novel by Don Winslow     If the power of good fiction is to transport you to another place, this book takes you there with the speed of a hyperloop. It’s hard to watch Denny Malone descend so inexorably in a life of drugs and corruption as a NYC cop. This is a tragic opera that teaches a lesson – some tragedies may happen suddenly, but others happen incrementally. And even then, we may not have the power to avert them.

 

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“Astral Plane,” Valerie June     She mixes instruments and styles into her own thing and she’s got a voice that sounds as old as the hills and fresh as a spring rain. This song just lifts you up. “Dancing on the astral plane/Holy water, cleansing rain/Floating through the stratosphere/Blind, but yet you see so clear.”

 

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“A Deeper Understanding,” The War on Drugs     Adam Granduciel is a little like Tash Sultana – a one-man band locked in a room emerges with a masterpiece. This record has both scale and scope. Granduciel’s America is like Springsteen’s – vast, panoramic, pulsing – but he also goes deep. The sounds he builds are layered and intricate, like parts of a personality slowly unfolding. There’s a little danger of shoe-gazing at times, but the beat obviates that. The songs are propulsive, always leaning forward. “But it just stopped raining/I’m stepping out into the world/I’m stepping out into the light, yeah.”

 

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Truth     From the #metoo movement to Bob Corker (“Alert the day care staff”) to the portrayal of JFK as a philandering druggie in “The Crown,” we moved away from denial, sycophancy and hagiography toward the light, or at least the truth (which can also be dark). Maybe we are losing patience. Maybe it’s because the stakes seem too high. Maybe we’re just tired of all the bullshit. But many of us seem more inclined to stand up and say what needs to be said. I’m not claiming we’ve reached a state of national enlightenment. There’s still enough fantasy, ignorance, wishful thinking and manipulation in this old world to float a big boat. Harry Frankfurt, the Princeton philosophy professor, noted in his book, “On Truth,” that “We live at a time when, strange to say, many quite cultivated individuals consider truth to be unworthy of any particular respect.” But here’s the deal. In the end, cynicism and bullshit are unsustainable. They collapse under their own weight. Truth opens up paths forward. And there was just a little bit more of it in 2017.

 

Cathedral (for the Dead)

Big roof beams

of

thick redwood

joists of eucalyptus

mint

musky bark

 

Deliberate evolution,

starts with seed,

germination

driven by deep

vegetable code

burrows deeper

and deeper

 

“Termite Art”

or the Hive Theory

deep conversation

without words

 

“You can achieve

transcendence.

Just listen! Listen!”

 

Hive mind

gravitational fields

time through space

one hand

many fingers

 

The Ladyfinger

moonlight

Diamond Sutra of

the estimated prophet

 

Gathers

Here in this valley

of energy, like

Big Sur, Yosemite,

Julian, Tuolumne,

 

Gathers

on the

horizon

shimmering with

light

 

Gathers

in San Francisco, Veneta,

Cornell, Eugene, New York,

West Virginia, Oolampali,

Watts, Longshoreman’s Hall,

the Pyramids, Fennario,

Tennessee, Palo Alto,

the seedy, poorly lit

backroads of America,

Yosemite, Paris, the

Mission, Marin,

Rio Nido, the Bardo

 

Gathers

in the bright light

of Jerry’s mind

 

Gathers

in the heart

of America

the yearning,

hopeful, melancholy,

ingenious heart

of America

 

America!

 

That big idea!

 

The first global

Open House

Just a few requirements

Initiative

Energy

Strong back

Imagination

Good credit rating

 

Old America

the sound of

bluegrass and

mountain songs

“like mountain grapes

they work harder”

they cry

they lament

they confess

 

My America,

scored by the Dead

deliberate

delighted

practical

funny

confounding

seductive

secretive

cocky

merciful

10 Reasons Why The Masters is the Perfect Golf Tournament

Jack Nicklaus 1986 Masters

A Sense of Place The Masters has been held in the same spot, every year, since it began in 1934. There are other tournaments that have a fixed home, but none of them are majors and none have the history, the personality and the stories that Augusta offers. Over the years, the familiarity with the place builds, yet it always has a dimension of newness. It’s a thrilling mixture.

Tradition The Masters has lots of it, from the green jacket and the Crows Nest to the honorary starters, the Champions Dinner, the caddy uniforms and the Par 3 Contest (watch Jack’s hole-in-one at the Par 3 this year above). Not all the traditions have been that great, frankly. One of the most egregious was fixed in 2012 when Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore were given membership to Augusta. But the traditions associated with the tournament itself are the kind that develop a deeper patina over the years, imparting a deep character and personality to the event.

Innovation Augusta may be traditional, but it ain’t hidebound. Change happens as needed. When Hootie Johnson became chairman in 1998, he made up for lost time. He brought diversity into the organization, created a world-class philanthropic arm, reshaped and lengthened the course and brought a tone of humility that had been lacking at Augusta. And he helped create the great Drive, Chip & Putt contest in 2014, a gold standard for bringing kids into the game.

Beauty They say that even the trees are power-washed at Augusta. I once heard that the chief agronomist (“groundskeepers” at other courses) had a standing $100 bet for anyone who could find a weed anywhere on the property. The azaleas are perfectly clipped and the quartz-filled bunkers are gleaming white. But it’s not just the pruning and polishing. The natural layout of the course is stunning, particularly the bobsled run from the 10th tee box down to Amen Corner, the cozy little hollow down by the 16th green and the long sightlines you can get from one side of the course to the other.

The Course All the beauty of Augusta almost disguises the beast that lurks below. The course is truly a test of champions. It looks pretty, there’s no rough, the pine straw looks so benign, but this course will roar and bark and bite. Is there a greater risk/reward hole than the 13th? If the length doesn’t get you, then the greens certainly will. When Augusta went to bentgrass on the greens, they might as well have put down linoleum. The algorithms used by the Greens Committee to do cup placements during the Masters must make Google search look like third-grade math. The modern Masters produces the most drama of any major (except, of course, for the U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines, which Tiger played with a broken leg). It consistently produces the tightest finishes, which is what we all love, right?

Berckmans Place Augusta opened up this new hospitality facility in 2013, named after the road that runs alongside the course. Located near the 5th hole, it’s 90,000 square feet filled with restaurants, memorabilia, bars and TVs and verandas, and putting greens that create four of the holes on the course. Along with the new driving range that opened a few years ago, it’s a sign of the confidence that Augusta has in the future of their franchise.

The Patrons That’s right. They’re not called spectators, which you are reminded of when you read the guidebook. But they live up to the name. To a person, people who come to The Masters are knowledgeable, passionate, polite, affable and helpful. Boundaries are respected – put a chair anywhere on the course, return five hours later, and it’s still there. Empty. But the patrons don’t hold back when things heat up (watch the way the crowd reacts to Phil’s first win in the video above). There’s nothing quite like the roar that rises from the 16th hole when someone hits a good shot. It’s guttural. Feherty once said during such a roar that the broadcast tower nearby was “vibrating like a tuning fork.”

Logistics Attendance is capped, but probably runs about 40,000 per day. Rumor has it that Augusta at one point brought in some logistics experts from Disney – and it shows. Things run quickly and smoothly. Lines are minimized. There’s always a good viewing spot. A few years ago, a big storm rolled through on Tuesday night, felling a huge pine tree that cut through the men’s restroom at the 16th hole like a hot knife through butter. It was literally rebuilt in 24 hours, up and running by Thursday morning.

Practice Rounds Lots of guys are out playing before the Thursday start. The atmosphere is relaxed, they’re trying out different shots and you might even get in a word or two with one of the players. Plus, on the 16th hole, you get to see the great “skipping” contest. Players tee it up right in from the front of the lake and skip the ball on the water up to the green. Everyone does it. Amazing. The excellent “patron” clip above captures the feeling. Check out the skipping contest at 22:13.

Egg Salad Sandwiches $1.50. Boom! They do a better job than Steve Carrel.