Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Scanning for News

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1996. All rights reserved.

Out here we pretty much ignore the TV weather forecasts. They aren't accurate more than half the time, so we'd do as well flipping a coin.

It's not that meteorologists in these parts are poorly trained or that our weather is particularly tricky. They're just demographically handicapped. They forecast weather for their primary viewing audience, the "big city," which is 25 miles away and 600 feet lower.

Folks like us in outlying rural areas are on our own, which is how we like it most of the time.

We don't follow the "news" much, either. It's all about city life, mostly, and one ghastly murder after another. There's not enough minutes on the TV news to tell us about all the shootings and robberies and child abuse going on. There's not enough pages in the newspaper.

No wonder the media never gets around to reporting on how our neighbor's breast cancer miraculously went into remission or how the Kiwanis constructed a band shell for the park. Some small towns have a weekly newspaper that prints news of kids that aren't in trouble and local governments that aren't corrupt, but they don't sell many copies.

Around here, when folks want "up-to-the-minute" news they don't subscribe to CNN, they buy a scanner. For less than the cost of a couple months of cable TV, a person can buy an emergency frequency scanner that tunes into the radio calls of police, firefighters and ambulance crews. The guy who runs the local gas station has one, and so do several neighbors.

If we need to check on winter road conditions we huddle around the scanner down at the Co-op and listen to the snowplow drivers chatter at each other. If there's an accident somewhere, we'll hear about it on the scanner long before it's news.

Some folks, like the neighbors we play cards with, leave their scanners on night and day. Over pinochle on a Friday night we listened as a crime wave swept through our town.

First, the local police stopped a couple cars for speeding -- out-of-staters, of course -- and checked on a barking dog down by the gravel pit. We all knew which dog they were talking about.

Later, there was a call about a suspicious person behind the bar and the Sheriff went to investigate. After a few moments he called for a backup. The "suspicious person" he went looking for was nowhere to be found, but a young kid he questioned outside the bar had gotten mad and was using "loud profanities," the Sheriff said. The 16-year-old boy was arrested.

After that, the night was quiet until the State Police were contacted by a woman who had been traveling northbound on the state highway when a dark-colored van passed her recklessly. As the van passed, a passenger yelled at the woman and made an obscene gesture. A patrolman said he would investigate.

As we folded our last hand, we reflected on how fortunate we were to live where the most serious crimes of that particular night were bad manners.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Scanning for News
Artwork: A Twilight View of a Small Town Street Decorated for Christmas

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Barn Dance

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1994. All rights reserved.

A mile or so from the nearest paved road, the graveled two-lane leading to the Spanbauer Ranch dead-ends in front of a red hip-roof barn. Surrounded by 1,400 acres of wheat and potatoes, the barn doors open to the sweet smell of fresh-cut grain.

Every Saturday night folks come from all directions, park outside this barn and climb a flight of stairs to the loft. There they find a 900-square-foot hardwood dance floor surrounded by chairs and tables and fronted by a four-man country swing band. Several couples will be two-stepping to a familiar Hank Williams tune.

John Spanbauer, Sr., the 76-year-old namesake of the farm, collects $5 per person and plenty of conversation at the loft door. When a newcomer holds out his hand and asks, "Don't you stamp us?"

Spanbauer replies, "No, we're kind of relaxed here."

In their homespun fashion, John and Marie Spanbauer have been holding Saturday night barn dances every week for the past five years. Only once has the barn been quiet on a Saturday, and that was on account of exceptionally heavy snow.

Barn dances of one sort or another have been held in rural America ever since New England settlers built their first barns over 200 years ago.

But the modern-day version of these social events, led by a toe-tappin' fiddler or a Western swing band, dates back to the 1920s.

Radio stations in Texas and Georgia were among the first to broadcast shows they called "barn dances," but two big stations -- WLS in Chicago and WSM in Nashville -- made the country music sound famous. The "Barn Dance" on WSM eventually became the Grand Ole Opry.

Beginning during the depths of the Depression and continuing until the late 1950s, barn dances spread all across the nation. In the West, barn dancers favored up-tempo swing music played by groups like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys while those in the East preferred the traditional country songs of the Carter Family. Both kinds of dances were major social events until rock-and-roll stole away their crowds.

Only a few barn dances remain, but those that have been the most successful -- like the Spanbauer Ranch dances -- are throwbacks to that early era when swing was king.

"We enjoy these dances a lot," says Dusty Sheets, lead guitarist for The Nomads, the band that has been playing at the Spanbauer Barn for the last four years.

Ron Stockham, the lead singer for The Nomads, goads the crowd between numbers. There's a lot of familiar faces on the dance floor and he addresses them by name, comments on their dancing, and makes mildly off-color jokes.

"Anybody have a birthday they want to announce?" he asks. "Or an anniversary? Tell us. We'll celebrate anything."

From 8 p.m. until close to midnight The Nomads produce a steady stream of toe-tapping tunes. The dancers, ranging from the mid-20s to late 80s in age, fill the floor with every number. Some barely shuffle to the beat while others twirl their partners.

When the band takes a break, Marie Spanbauer takes a seat on the bench in front of an old upright piano perched next to the bandstand. She pounds out old-time waltzes while everyone dances and sings along.

"She learned to play by ear when she was a little girl. She never learned to read a note," says her husband with obvious pride as he scatters a little cornmeal across the dance floor.

"We love it here," says Carl Kerner, who has been coming to the dances with his wife Dorothy for the past four years. "We've only missed about four weeks since we started coming. The floor is good and the band is good."

The Kerners remember when this kind of music was performed all across southern Idaho. They followed groups like Russ Pike and the Prairie Knights to dance halls in towns like Hagerman, Burley, Twin Falls, and Glenns Ferry.

"We miss those days," says Dorothy Kerner. "There aren't many places like this any more."

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Barn Dance
Artwork: Renfro Valley Barn Dance

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Ground Truthing Crop Circles

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 2002. All rights reserved.

From up above, the truth can seem so obvious. Satellite photographs of Earth taken from space show us where storm systems are located and in what direction they are headed. These images can tell us how thick the clouds are, their temperature and movements, and suggest a likelihood of precipitation.

But an image is not reality. Those white shapes on the satellite image could be snow, ice, fog or maybe just clouds. Down on the surface there could be a blizzard, a gentle rain or overcast skies.

The process of verifying what a satellite or remote sensing image really represents is called "ground truthing." It takes ground truthing -- going to an area to take field measurments or communicating with someone on location -- to find out what's really happening on the surface.

Ground truthing is essential to determining the accuracy of overhead imagery of all kinds, from weather satellites to remote-sensing crop data to military intelligence. Without it, meteorologists will err, crop inputs will be misapplied and missiles will fall on unintended targets.

From up above, the wheat and barley fields of southern England appear to have been visited by extraterrestials. Flying overhead, you can spot dozens of geometric shapes, lines and pictograms carved out of the croplands below -- designs that surely must have been made from the air, where the artist could see what he was doing.

These "crop circles," which began appearing each summer in the 1970s, have become a tourist attraction in England, as thousands of people flock to the fields to gawk and ponder their significance.

Are they the work of aliens from outer space? Pranksters? Unusual microbursts of wind? Or is there something supernatural going on in the land of Merlin and Stonehenge?

Down on the surface, there are explanations aplenty. One group of landscape artists, calling itself The Circlemakers, claims responsibility for many of England's "crop formations." They sneak off into fields at night with schematics in hand, carefully flattening crops (bending but not breaking stalks) into elaborate designs. They've even begun taking consignments for commercial projects.

Like corn mazes in America, crop circles in England provide farmers who have them a supplemental source of income.

There are others taking the crop circle phenomenon more seriously, though, accusing The Circlemakers and others of being mere graffiti artists and imitating the work of aliens or something supernatural. Cerealogists, those who study crop circles as a science, have carefully scoured crop formations and found stunted seed-heads, enlarged and bent nodes, deformed and stunted seeds, and growth reduction in seedlings within their boundaries.

According to the Des Moines Register, Michigan biophysicist William C. Levengood has found tiny, nearly pure spheres of iron in the soil where crop circles occur. He theorizes that a magnetic field draws particles in, heats them to a molten state and disperses them in a rotating fashion inside the crop formation.

Although they look stunningly supernatural from the air and seem impossible to create from the ground where an overhead perspective is not available, crop circles are well within the creative limits of a prankish undergraduate student.

Writing in Scientific American, Matt Ridley describes how he created a crop circle with his brother-in-law late one August night a few years ago:

"I stepped into a field of nearly ripe wheat in northern England, anchored a rope into the ground with a spike and began walking in a circle with the rope held near the ground. It did not work very well: the rope rode up over the plants. But with a bit of help from our feet to hold down the rope, we soon had a respectable circle of flattened wheat.

"Two days later there was an excited call to the authorities from the local farmer. I had fooled my first victim."

The same methods were used to create the circles in the motion picture Signs on 200 acres of rented farmland in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the movie, actor Mel Gibson portrays a farmer who finds an elaborate crop formation in his field.

Ridley admits to making two more crop circles using improved techniques -- a garden roller filled with water and planks suspended from two ropes.

"Getting into the field without leaving traces is a lot easier than is usually claimed. In dry weather, and if you step carefully, you can leave no footprints or tracks at all... One group of circle makers uses two tall bar stools, jumping from one to another."

Like the clouds on satellite imagery, the shapes above do not reflect the truth below. Crop circles are not everywhere the same -- the ones found in America, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere obviously have different origins. Their truth is not universal, but personal and allegoric, and rarely grounded in reality.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Ground Truthing Crop Circles
Artwork: Aerial View of Crop Circles in a Wheat Field

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Harvest Song

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.

Summer's back is broken. The hot, dry winds of August gave way this week to steady rain. We haven't had a soaking like this since June, or May.

There will be more hot days this year, without doubt, but in these mountain valleys October is already in sight, and November too. Spring is often a latecomer, but autumn is ever anxious, showing up at the door weeks before he's due.

I see autumn in the meadows and pastures, where ryegrasses and wild wheat have reached maturity, their tops all yellow and bent over with the burden of seed. The goldenrod is blooming now, taking the place of monkeyflower and penstemon.

In our garden, a second crop of carrots are showing their orange roots above the dark earth.

We've seen the last of the raspberries for this year, I'm afraid, but the snow peas are still producing. Yesterday I dug up an armload of potatoes.

The urgency of spring sprouting and the rush of summer growth has given way to a time of laid-back fulfillment. Eggs have hatched and fledglings are now on the wing. Seeds and fruits and nuts and pods are well on their way to completion. Summer is ripe and ready for harvest.

"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each... Grow green with spring, yellow and ripe with autumn."

Such was the sage advice of Henry David Thoreau written one day in late August. One hundred thirty-nine years later I find common ground in the truths he tilled. It is not just the crops in the field we gather this time of year, but those in our souls as well.

People talk about the autumn and winter years of life as if spring were but a distant memory. This belies the flush of hope that surges through the oldest veins when crocuses first blossom. And it negates the sense of completeness even the youngest farmer feels at harvest time.

Each year's cycle is a condensed version of a lifespan. One year lived fully can survive eternity.

And so I try to remain awake to the season, whatever mood it's in. At noonday I drink deeply from the winey scent of fermenting fallen apples and stand stock-still at sunset facing west, taking in the red-orange afterglow.

Swathers mow through barley fields out on the flats just as sheep bands come down from the high country to be sheared. While ranchers stack hay their dairy farming neighbors are storing up silage. And in the same moment that corn is being shucked some watermelon down valley is being severed from its vine.

Every harvest is the same, whether of berries or beans or spuds -- a gathering in, a stocking up, a payoff. Youthful dreams of spring mature through summer in order that we can glean them in the cool, contemplative autumn air.

Come winter I will hold up this apple harvested from my tree and see the first green buds of April, smell the sweet fragrance of June, and feel the muscles in my shoulders stretching for it on some outlying branch.

Michael Hofferber
Rural Delivery
Harvest Song
Artwork: The Harvest by Vincent Van Gogh