Government, Legal

Apples, Oranges and The Pits

The Church’s plan: 148 cluster homes on 33 acres. One access point.

Yesterday the Lake County 19th Circuit Courtroom 205 heard closing arguments from the Archdiocese of Chicago vs. the Village of Libertyville, case 17MR0001013.

After 9 full days of throwing paper at each other and the judge, witnesses grilled, the final decision comes down to choosing between safety and due process.
While the weight of the issue is whether the Church can go ahead with its 148 houses on 33 acres, or not, the arguments came down to the definition of “safe”, and a village board’s right to vote its conscience.

The key word is arguments. The parties had different paths of logic.  Like apples and oranges.

The Church first of all defended its development plan on the precedent of the LaSalle/Sinclair Factors, which is a set of Illinois measures used to evaluate zoning changes.

One by one, the Church counsel ticked off their presumed compliance with the factors. Will the development fit the neighborhood, yes. Is the Church losing money as is, yes.  Will the Village make money, yes. Do health, safety and welfare benefits offset any downsides, yes. Is the land unsuitable as currently zoned, yes. Has it been vacant a long time, yes. Does the Village need the homes, yes. Was it in the Village Plan, yes.

Each of the points is debatable, but that wasn’t the pivotal point of the Church’s argument.  Their real bone to pick was the “arbitrary, unreasonable, unjustified and capricious” decision by the village board to vote down the plan because it was unsafe for access and egress.

The Church’s “arbitrary etc” charge is based on two dueling traffic consultants’ reports, spiced with a good measure of Lake County DOT traffic data, computer models, and some established science about traffic weight times, traffic gaps, highway capacity, and mixed up–no, osterized with a lot of math.  Recall Twain’s concern about lies, damned lies, and statistics.

The Village had decided back in 2017 that residents presently have difficulty making left turns in and out of the neighborhood, and the development’s single access would further aggravate the situation, with the certain threat of an accident.  The lack of a traffic signal, and a second access are at the bottom of this scrum, and how they got there is not important today, other than to say that the Church knew of the problem long ago, and should have planned it better when they had the chance.

Northbound on Butterfield during morning commute. Choosing the right gap may be difficult.

But where the Church built its argument was on the “non-credible” village consultant’s findings.  Instead, its own consultant should be the respected source.  To that end, their counsel spent considerable time stressing that all published reports regard the access “adequate” and it was never claimed that they were “unsafe”.  That is solely the village’s determination.

But in fact, when the DOT witness had testified earlier that the access was adequate, she also offered that other people may disagree.

When confronted with the notion that a high traffic area may complicate entry and exit to the development, including those difficult left turns, the Church’s comment was, “We have an arterial highway that has to move traffic fast.  The property is in direct conflict.  But that’s the risk of all development today.”

For the Village, the argument was from a different angle.  While the Church pointed to all of the LaSalle Sinclair factors as the standard,  the Village focused only on one factor: health, safety and welfare.   “Despite the beauty and luxury of homes promised, they pale compared to safety.  The proposed increase in home values won’t compensate for safety and loss of life.”

The judge himself intruded on the closing argument for the Village.   He asked if the safety is any worse at Ridgewood and Lake streets, to which the Village counsel replied that just because those intersections are also difficult, doesn’t justify adding yet another.  When the judge challenged the supposed hardship of drivers waiting for a gap in the traffic, Village counsel observed, citing the Highway Capacity Manual, that while statistics may indicate that the intersection is relatively open for turns, the reality of a long wait in a car to make a left turn may reduce a driver’s tolerance to choose the right gap in the traffic.  The judge countered, “that’s just common sense,” to which the Village replied, “that doesn’t make it any less dangerous.”

There is much give and take between the judge and village counsel about a traffic lights, wait times, gaps in traffic, and there is a moment when it’s suggested that the Village’s position is somewhat hypothetical.  The reply is noteworthy: “Actually, everything here is hypothetical.  The home values are hypothetical.  Home sales are hypothetical.  Nobody knows.  We just have to guess.  The Village decided it was unsafe.”

In his conclusion, village counsel noted that the evidence supported the Village’s legislative determination to be a reasonable, rational decision.  “At peak times, both morning and afternoon there will be an inadequate gap decision made by a driver.  We aren’t going to test it out and see how it goes.  The beauty and luxury homes are not worth it.”

Since the beginning of the trial, the judge has frequently returned to the viability and feasibility of a signal light at the Lake/Butterfield intersection.  It may factor in the nature and specifics of his decision.  He complimented and thanked both attorneys for their preparations and comprehensive presentations of the arguments, and after requesting a 15-page summary of all facts from each, hoped to reach a decision by January 31, 2019.

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direct mail, Fundraising, Marketing, Media, USPS

USPS Cuts To The Chase

USPS pops you an email of today’s delivery.

140 billion images per year, some right to your smartphone.

Have you noticed what’s arriving in your mailbox these days? For many of us, getting Informed Delivery Service saves us from a trip down an icy driveway.

Over a year ago, we signed up for Informed Delivery, and I told you about it.  It’s like X-Ray vision, or electronic surveillance, though that sounds ominous.

American Girl’s catalog and URL are displayed in your email.

Their catalog arrives the same day.

The email alert provides a URL that takes you directly to their website.

The USPS emails you hours before delivery, sending a set of pictures of today’s mail.

In case you have forgotten, the USPS scans over 140 billion letters a year.

The Heifer letter follows their email.

Each of those scans creates a jpg file.  Because of the Intelligent Mail Bar code on the envelope, it tracks that mail to you.   When you sign up, they take your email address, and voila: you have x-ray vision, kind of.

What is really cool, and smart of the post office, is that they have now introduced a URL hyperlink service for advertisers to catch you at your computer, laptop, mobile phone.  Rather than wait for the hike to the mailbox, you can open the piece on line.

Hammacher is America’s oldest catalog company, and also a memorable tongue twister.

USPS knows a multi channel approach includes direct mail, email and web.

And that’s what people are doing.  Advertisers like Flemings Steakhouse, American Girl, Soft Surroundings, Heifer International, Hammacher Schlemmer are taking advantage of the USPS service to get into your heads, if not your hands, as rapidly as possible.

Soft Surroundings invites you into their catalog.

If you haven’t signed up for Informed Delivery at home, you should.  Not only does it tell you what’s coming, you are also on alert for when something does not arrive, like a paycheck, or a bill.

So: you can just wait for the mail, and pursue your daily rituals of fetching for it, or, cut to the chase, and see it now.

 

Thanks for reading!  No, I am not a shill for the USPS, but I do believe that it is taking the right steps to be relevant in a changing world.

 

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Culture, Legal

The Case Grinds Exceedingly Fine, And Slow

In our Village, we are seeing the end game take place between the Church and Libertyville about the disposition of a piece of Church property designated for a housing development.  Many of us feel it could have been settled with some discussion, but that’s not what’s happening.  As the saying goes, “See you in Court.”

Today was the fifth session of the Catholic Bishop of Chicago vs the Village of Libertyville case # 17MR00001013, Lake County 19th Circuit Court. Witnessing the event is a little like church, in that strange things happen up at the front, and the seats are bone hard down at the back.

Early on day 1, we watched as the opposing attorneys pushed sheaves of papers at each other, forcing the opening of massively thick three-ring binders to extract pages and replace them with others. Through it all, the judge kept a steady, grave face as he too had to change out documents in his own set of binders.  Keeping right up, he referenced exhibit numbers with the speed of a vigorous game of Whackamoley as the attorneys swapped pages before him.

After some additional scuffling about admissibility of late-arriving evidence, the attorneys finally got down to their opening statements.  For the Church, it was a clear cut case of capricious, arbitrary decision-making by the Village that infringed upon their constitutional rights.  They referenced the LaSalle Factors, which were a set of standards established by the Illinois Supreme court years ago about the rights of property owners.  At the base of it, the Church believes the LaSalle factors support them completely.  The Village decision caused the Church hardship.

For the Village, the argument throws the LaSalle Factors back at the Church.  The hardship was self-made.  Years ago, when they knew they would develop the land on Butterfield Road, they should have created a safe right of way, and they didn’t do it.

What is this debate all about?  Traffic safety, and the need for a set of lights at Lake and Butterfield.  Without those lights, and the connected access to the proposed development, it was a non-starter for the Village, which voted the project down.   For four days, the Church presented hundreds of documents testifying to the safety of the Butterfield access, and to the development process, supported by the consultants and officials who wrote them.

Now after five days and one sumptuous, turkey-laden Thanksgiving-week-long hiatus, plus a full-court snowstorm to kick things up a notch, the attorneys have returned to continue the debate before the ever-game judge.   The Village will now present the defense of their decision, again referencing their own bushel of documents testifying to the development process and to the non-safety of the access.

You may think it a simple case to sort out a simple highway safety issue, but then why would we need lawyers?

It was striking to see that there were only two attorneys for each side, but the real measure of intensity is in the volumes of paper presented.  The Church team brings in 13 bankers boxes of files every morning and spreads them across two rows of court benches.  They have two luggage carts.  There is a law clerk who is constantly running into the court bleachers to fetch another file folder.  The Village also has two luggage carts, but only about 3 boxes of files.  You can see who has the larger budget for photocopying.

The chatter in the room is between the judge and the two attorneys, while the witness gets to offer yes and no testimony.  Faithfully, diligently, the court reporter is forever typing her keys to create a transcript of thousands of lines of give and take.  It’s like recording the laying of a million bricks in an infinite wall of legalese.

Through it all, the judge is playing referee on the admissibility of every utterance.  He is patient, but not sympathetic with either side particularly.  His is not an easy task.   He is taking in mountains of detail about a subject he had no interest in, yet there he is, stuck in the middle of it.  The halting pace is interrupted by objections about admissibility, form, substance, relevance, foundation.

For instance,

Attorney 1: “Did a camel pass through the eye of a needle?”

Attorney 2: “Objection.  Foundation.”

Attorney 1: “Camel hair coats are sewn with #8 needles.  Would you agree?”

Witness: “Yes.”

Attorney 1: “Speaking of needles, did you see that camel?”

When the two sides finally close down this week, then the judge will take his numerous binders, thousands of pages, gratuitously thrust upon him, packed in his own luggage rack, and he will read everything again, and come back with a decision.

It makes me think of a parent being charged with the onerous duty to sort out a mess the kids made.

After watching these two sessions, and the grindingly slow development of the respective arguments, my advice to anyone who is at odds with another person: go figure it out.  Talk.  Find a way to avoid court.  I think the judge would agree.

This case will finish around Thursday this week.

December 1: The case has been continued to Friday, December 7, upon which day we will hear closing arguments.

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Culture, direct mail, Government, Marketing, Media, USPS

Somehow, The Mail Still Goes Through

Since we last looked, in August, the USPS has broken through another quarter, and published its latest report on Revenues, Pieces and Weights. For you marketers and mailers, here are some stats, and following that, another look at the USPS’s ironic, weird situation.

The good news: direct mail was up by 337,627,000 pieces, a 1.8% increase over Q4 a year ago.  The surge was due to the mid-term election mail, and if you are counting, in the last three months it delivered one additional piece of mail to every addressable soul living in the country.

The Princess Diamond..lost?

The bad news: full year direct mail was down 1.4%, or missing by 1,066,486,000 pieces.  In fact, the shortfall totaled 115,925 tons of mail.  That’s the equivalent of losing the Princess Cruise Lines’ Diamond, which by the way carries 2,760 passengers.  Imagine if it had gone missing.

The bright spot on the USPS horizon however is the growth of parcel delivery.  Package service mail and parcel delivery revenues are up 12% for the year, a happy indication of the robust growth of online ordering.

“Just leave it in between the doors.”

But just when you are feeling that the USPS has a rosy future in parcel delivery, be warned that companies like Amazon, Walmart and Target, the post office’s largest three customers, are now researching ways to do their own “last mile” deliveries.  Watch out, a robot may drop through your roof sometime soon.

Indeed, the parcel delivery business has its own costs, not the least of which are fuel, trucks, planes and drivers.  Did you know that there is a shortage of truck drivers?  USPS transportation costs in the past year were up 8.6% , or by $623,000,000.

Overall, the USPS reported nearly $71 billion in revenues from operations, placing it just behind Target (#39 on the Fortune 500 with $71.8B) as a business enterprise.  As the media enthusiastically reports, the post office missed its bottom line by nearly $4 billion, half of which is owing to pensions and health benefits accruals.

Which is a major source of consternation at the USPS.  Indeed much of the company’s 10K discusses the burdens of pre-funding according to federal government department rules, much different than the private sector.  As a result, it takes the expense on the books, keeps the cash, and adds it to its liabilities.  To date, the USPS must pre-fund $67 billion to employees’ and retirees’ health and pension benefit funds.

For your information, there are 497,000 career employees and 600,000 retirees to provide for. The USPS is the #3 employer in the United States, right behind Amazon, USPS #1 customer, which had 589,000 on the payroll.  The country’s top employer: Walmart, #2 USPS customer, with 2,300,000.

The bigger irony of the USPS is that it is a business, run by business people, but by government rules.  By law, it cannot make changes in products, pricing or service without federal approval.  Its wages, health and pension obligations are modeled on federal department standards.   And isn’t it rich then, that its Board of Governors is subject to Senate approval, and has been short four governors since 2014, the last time the Senate voted to approve them.  It cannot raise a quorum.

In return for federal oversight, it is granted monopoly rights to make door-to-door delivery of mail.  Only recently has its parcel service entered the competitive arena, where it is growing nicely.

Remarkably, despite the USPS financial shortfall of $4 billion, it receives no tax dollars.  Compare that to 18 Federal departments which are entirely tax-funded.  In terms of tax-funded budget, the USPS’s closest federal cousin would be the EPA with a budget of $5.7 billion….nowhere near the Departments of Education $68B, Energy $28B, Homeland Security $44B or Health & Human Services $65B.

Compared to these budgeted costs, it is distressing to see the public criticism the post office endures.    Fortunately, the White House has taken initiative to turn the situation around.

Still, the business continues to grow and manage.  Last year it added 1.2 million new addresses to its rounds, and processed 37 million address changes. It delivered, and picked up 148 billion pieces of mail, six days a week. All in, it drives and walks by 157 million addresses every day.

At a supposed cost of $4 billion, that’s not bad!

 

 

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Culture, direct mail, Fundraising, Marketing

It’s All In The Bag

A max-sized lumpy day-glo envelope from Disabled Veterans National Foundation

October comes around, and the non profits are making their first of several strong pitches for another discretionary dollar donation. I find my mailbox full, and refreshingly, with some new twists.

Kudos to the team at St. Joseph’s Indian School who have brought in some new creative to overlay their basic control kit.

St Joe’s gift vouchers go full color.

The Dream Catcher is the most unique gift of all.

As always, the Dream Catcher is a unique keeper. I have several, which make their way to the grandchildren. But the kits also deliver more colorful coupons. We’ll see if they repeat…or does the sterile, sober-looking appeal still trump happy colors?

As yet, St Joseph’s is not twigging to my male gender: I am getting stunningly beautiful foil labels with flowers and butterflies. I can’t use these, not even on my golf clubs.

The Post-It Note goes pointy for more attention.

Another St. Joseph first for me: a pointy Post-It note. It’s a little different, and catches my eye.

Certificates, suitable for framing deliver a message.

Plus, I have received a colorful, feather-imaged gold foil, embossed certificate of appreciation, on laid stock, no less!   Veterans of Foreign Wars sent me a similar recognition.

These certificates really are quite classy, as ‘thank you’s go. I am not going to frame them, but that doesn’t mean that someone somewhere else won’t frame theirs.

VFW targets the CD-player crowd with Christmas carols.

VFW also sent along a CD of Christmas carols! This may seem early to you, but actually is just in the nick of time: our new car no longer has a CD drive, but hey, it’s the thought that counts. I do have a cassette player in the basement, a.k.a., Santa’s Workshop.

Father Flanagan’s Boystown has sent me a Puzzles and Brainteasers booklet. You know, I mean to give it to the kids, but in an idle moment, I look at them too.

Beautifully designed gift bags are the pride of several organizations.

In an additional kit I was also treated to a colorful paper gift bag. These items show up across several charities, and I suspect there is a traveling paper bag sales rep who is shipping bunches of orders back to a printing plant in Shenzhen China.

The tote bag is a premium-with-donation offer from VFW.

Veterans of Foreign Wars has kicked the bag up a notch. They offer a full-sized  tote as a premium with donation.

DVNF throws in the bag and a T-shirt with their request for donation.

At the top of the pile however is Disabled Veterans National Foundation (not to be confused with Disabled American Veterans) which sent the whole bag, and a T-shirt, in a day-glo yellow max-sized envelope.

I am now thinking that there are regular flights for printing sales personnel from U.S. to Shenzhen.

St. Joseph’s vinyl totes are small, but classy.

Truly, the most impressive were printed plastic vinyl tote bags courtesy of St. Joseph’s, that aside from their modest size, sported quality designs.

Lateral Thinking

There is an artful expansion of thinking on applying postage stamps to the reply envelope.   Pasting real postage on a reply envelope is a riveting issue.   Donors shudder to waste the stamps, and I am sure the charity’s accountants aren’t thrilled about giving away postage.

But here’s the thing–you may remember in my book Many Happy Returns, the story of the fundraiser who coaxed the donor to please supply their own stamps. The reply envelope said, “Your stamp will save us money.”  In a manner of speaking, it did. Average dollar gifts rose 6%, but response rate dropped 15%. Go figure!

DAV fronts all of the postage on the reply envelope..50 cents worth.

Anyway, the pioneer in applying the full 49-cents (or so) postage was DAV. They primed the pump, and happily cashed our flood of checks. We Baby Boomer donors can’t see a stamp go to waste.

But now, there are some diversions in the path.

VFW fronts only 5 cents, but appearances count in their favor.

VFW provides 5, one-cent stamps to the postage paid BRE, and the USPS will charge the rest. The modest nickel cost looks like a lot of stamps–but it’s not 50 cents’ worth.  This effectively cuts VFW’s in-the-mail costs by $450 per thousand, while still appearing to offer the more expensive stamps.

St Joes includes a faux return address label with 3-cents postage.

St. Joseph’s sharpens their pencil a little more, and only provides 3 one-cent stamps, but adorns their BRE with a faux return address label in my name.  How can I throw this out?

Boystown decorates their BRE with zero-value greeting stamps, but they look great, regardless.

Not to be outdone, Father Flanagan applies 4 Greeting Stamps of no value whatsoever to their BRE, but they look great!

Who can deny the effort?

To date we have 46 greeting cards in inventory. Production quality is high.

Throughout all of the recent spate of mailings I have received, greeting cards still predominate. I counted 46, all high production quality, and which are now stored in one of those pretty paper gift bags.

We have a bucket of pens, but St Joe’s are the classiest.

As well, I have been issued with numerous writing pens…lots of them, and some very tastefully designed, courtesy of St. Joseph.

And speaking of writing, I have a mountain of note pads, some die-cut, none of which can be discarded.

A pencil case for the pens. A lunch box may be next.

They get used.  And when not, where do they go?  Into a pen and pencil bag, supplied by St. Joseph’s!  Wow, what’s next…a lunchbox?

There is an ongoing debate, stirred up by loyal donors about the exorbitant expense taken in these mailing pieces.  How can a charitable organization spend this much, and then ask for more money?

The fact is, the gift strategy works.  Especially if the gifts are exclusive and high quality.  When they are accompanied by personal, expressive letters, the efforts are rewarded by donors who are sitting on, or searching, for the summit of Maslow’s pyramid: self actualization.

Thanks for reading, and sharing.  If you wish to check on these charitable organizations, you can visit Charity Navigator, or the organization’s websites to see their financial disclosures and especially their direct mail fundraising performance.

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Agriculture, Culture, Environment, Science, Wildlife

Marmoration Nation

The Brown Marmorated Stinkbug

I had to laugh when a recent plea came across our Village Facebook page, “Will they be spraying for mosquitos this year?”

The summer’s nearly over.  Fall’s coming.  Frost on the pumpkin.  Mosquitoes??

Skitters may be annoying, a nuisance, bothersome and carriers of West Nile disease, but other than that, well, they aren’t stink bugs.

Last fall we found scads of these penny-sized twirps on the side of our brick ranch, an unsightly rash of brown measles, sunning themselves every afternoon through September and into October.  Mindful of the laws of karma, I did not kill them.  I flicked them off the sliding door screen and wished them a good life, but somewhere else.

Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs are so named because they have a marbled camouflage suit.  Hard to see as they bask on the lilac leaves in the afternoon sun.

Halyomorpha halys: a member of the family Pentatomidae

They also smell.Before understanding what I was dealing with, I smacked one, and as it exploded under my hand, it shot off a dying waft of odor that resembled rotting, moldy underwear, which I say kindly.  Understandably, they are not tasty, so lack many natural predators.  Crows turn up their noses.  It turns out that wasps will go for them.  Terrific!

Stinkbugs are unpleasant creatures, only recently making it to our corner of the Midwest in northern Illinois. Apparently they originated in the far east, and hopped a ship to a harbor on the east coast, and with time, they have moved west.  Apparently they like soybeans which grow abundantly on a 33-acre field across the highway from us.

Time moved on, and as the snows fell in December, the stinkbug drifted out of our memory.   We passed the evenings in front of the fire, catching up on Survivor and other important social studies.

Then, one day in January, a black dot appeared on the family room wall, over the door.

“What the…?”  I stared.   “That’s a, a, a stinkbug!  What’s it doing in here?”

No longer spooked by the ironies of karmic payback, I grabbed the odiferous brown button in a wad of tissue, and walked it off to the toilet for a quick dispatch to the next world.

“Don’t know where that came from, but it’s history.” I flumphed down on the TV couch beside my wife to witness 8 publicity-hungry people attempting to dive into the Pacific ocean to retrieve a key, which would unlock a box of beanbags back on the beach to throw into a basket which would tip over and raise a victorious tribe buff.

Then, looking up over the fireplace, another brown button.

You can guess the conversation that followed, and that eventually, unbelievably, tortuously repeated itself for the next three months as every day, two more bugs appeared in the family room.

Under duress, their natural odor is intolerable.

Somewhere on the outer lining of our house, a gang of stinkbugs was holed up, waiting for spring.  We came to imagine that the ringleader would crawl among its cohorts asking for volunteers to go out and check the weather.

Everyday, without fail, two creatures would emerge, quietly, stealthily, and present themselves somewhere in the family room or hallway.  They never flew.  They just appeared, immobile, prostrate, stuck to a wall.   They stood out like 8-balls in a bathtub, and so quickly ended up mummified in tissue and expelled to a plumbing system which hopefully took them to a station miles way from us.

And then spring came, and the bugs one day missed their cue, not showing up.  We relaxed, and enjoyed the following months that scrolled through May and June’s fragrant flowers, thick lawns cut weekly, releasing the unforgettable aromas of fresh cut grass.  Deep into summer the garden fluttered under the visiting companies of butterflies, mindful robins, cock-eyed, frenetic squirrels and later the incessant, raucous buzzing of the cicadas.

As September arrived, the sun warmed our home on its west side.  Stepping out to the deck to light the barbecue, I lifted the lid, and looking up, spotted, there, on the wall, a brown, marmorated, stinkbug!

Stinkbugs: seekers of nook and cranny.

“Cripes!  A stinkbug!” I groaned.   Looking beyond this unwelcome visitor I found another.  And another.   “Holy crap!  They’re back!”  Sure enough, as I walked along the side of our house I spied more than a dozen.

The next day, I obtained a particularly bug-lethal concoction from the hardware store. Mixing approximately 3 tablespoons to a quart of water, I filled up a handheld spray bottle.   The solution was 5 times as powerful as recommended.

A crusade of epic proportions

For the balance of September I sprayed every afternoon and every morning, targeting bugs in twos and threes, clustered under the soffit, ensconced in the cracks between the bricks, hiding under the lilac leaves, perched on the window screens, and skittering along the edges of the gutters.

It was a crusade of epic proportions.   I had gone through a whole quart of the concentrate, and went back for a second, relishing the daily harvest I was taking on these annoying little bugs. The walls dripped in poison spray as the bugs plummeted to the ground, dead.

You may recall the adventure story, “Leiningen And The Ants” .  A plantation owner and his crew are defending the crops from a vast plague of soldier ants that devour every living thing in their path as they march, six-legged, towards the house.  Leiningen first attempts to fend them off with a moat. The crafty, unstoppable ants still cross. Next he douses his fields in gasoline to burn the ants, but they forge on.  Finally, he floods the entire plantation by diverting the river, only just escaping his own vivisection as the ants pulled him down.

Somehow, I felt like Leiningen, defending house and home, and winning.

Early this October, the weather turned cold and wet, and the stinkbugs were gone.  They had vacated the trees, the walls, the gutters, the screens, and the soffit.  It was over.

October in Illinois is a flighty month, climate-wise.  After raking all the fallen leaves, we were presented with three days of 80’F weather.  This past week, I surveyed the yard, and looking up to our gutters spotted more of the bug.  Returning to the house, I loaded up another quart of the juice, and like trigger-hyper Terminator in a video game proceeded to decimate the bugs, which by this time numbered a small mob.

“I just finished off 84 stinkbugs!” reporting to my wife, who rolled her eyes.  “The sun brought them out, and they got the juice.” I was triumphant.   The sides of our ranch looked like a target range for paintball, with little wet splats everywhere.

After lunch, I ventured out to the deck as the sun came around.  “Geez!!  There’s more of ’em!”  I went back to search and destroy mode, and sprayed 135 more bugs.  “That’s gotta be it.  Just gotta be.”  Indeed, it did seem like their rush was finally kaput.

Our yard hosts a forest of mature trees.  Closest to the house is a Moraine Locust.  This tall giant provides the most generous and pleasing canopy during the summer months.  Swinging in our hammock one can gaze up at the millions of tiny leaves that sway effortlessly in the wind like  green petals against a brilliant blue sky.  It’s an irreplaceable retreat, passing the time, thoughtless and serene.

The summer idyl is over in October however, and that is when the leaves turn yellow, and all one billion of them fall to the ground, and to our roof, settling in golden billows packing the gutters.  It is a regular ritual to blast them out of the gutters, and with that purpose, I climbed to the roof, leaf blower in hand, and started the excavation.

A little tank at the bottom of the summit.

Hardly into the first side, and I scan the roof for errant leaves to push over the edge, when before me creeps a stinkbug.  Crabbing across the asphalt shingles, it joins another stinkbug.  I take a moment to blow it away with the leaves.  And then I look towards the peak of the roof, and there is a long train of bugs marching along the summit like Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest trek, complete with sherpa porters, numbering in the hundreds.

I am aghast.

Stepping up towards them I inspect the shingles at my feet, and watch as stinkbugs enter and exit every little groove in the overlapping sheets.  They are everywhere.  This is home.  Seekers of nooks and crannies, they have found refuge.  I walk up to the roof ventilators.  These are black, screened aluminum umbrellas which shelter vapor draft for the attic.  I tap on one, and 20 stinkbugs explode out from under in every direction like gangsters rousted from a crap game.

The neighborhood is a giant roof garden of marmorated chia pets.

I finish the leaf job, and descending to the deck pause to reflect.  Leiningen conquered the ants, but only after torching and flooding his land.  Not an option here.   It dawns on me, as I survey the gables and rooflines next door, that every house in town is hosting a giant blanket of stink bugs on their roofs like an enormous marmorated chia pet.  There is no defense.

We’re done for, until the frost comes, and it can’t come too soon.

Thanks for reading and sharing!  The Department of Agriculture sees these as an economic pest.  But a solution is hopefully underway.

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Agriculture, Culture

A Change In The Clouds

Fall is a month away. It doesn’t seem like long ago that we were pouring fertilizer on a robust lawn before May was half done, satisfied with a green, grassy, house apron devoid of even one dandelion.

Back then, summer was still a month away pretty much, and we had a full agenda of activity including play and travel, romps with the kids, and some quiet moments by a large body of water, soothed by a clement breeze sent from the northwest.  The sun was up by 5:14am, the weather folks pointed to clear skies, and to the occasional fluffy batt of clouds, high up and benevolent as they shaded the lawns, fairways, fields and lakes for a moment before moving along.

Driving to Door County in Wisconsin today, I looked at the limestone cliffs which are the mirror image of the Niagara escarpment, running from The Falls north through Tobermory to Sault Ste. Marie and then south to Green Bay.  From the road, you see a 100-foot-high cliff, a sandwich of million-year-old seashells, blanketed with a hard-earned topsoil.  Above that, the trees, orchards, soy and cornfields richly, generously, spread in every direction.

And above that, are the clouds.  Lots of them. Hung against August’s blue sky, they are more intent on passing.  Their bases are grey, and the furls are silver, with a blown effect that signals that they are in a hurry to be somewhere else.

That’s when I sense the shift.  Our planet, perched on a permanent tilt, has moved along its perpetual path around the sun, and in the process, has changed its shadow settings.  The sun rose at 6:07 this morning.

Back here on earth, we are sensing the change, despite all our denials.

As a kid, I didn’t really sense seasonal change.  But when I was working age, the bells started to ring.

Back then, early in the morning, in the third week of August, standing at the bottom of a tobacco conveyor belt, there was a wet fog lifting across the cold, grey, sandy fields, revealing countless rows of tobacco stalks stripped to their top leaves. Only a couple more rounds to go.

Last night’s boat was left beside the kiln, ready to sew and hang first thing.  As we pulled back the dew-wet canvas, the leaves are warm from their own combustibility, and exude a sweet peppery scent.  Their steam escapes into the cool morning air nuzzling my face. Lifting them limp out of the boat, they beg to be hung out to dry, and quickly.

The tying machine folks aren’t the first up.  The primers and the boss’s family were out hours before, unloading the neighboring kiln in the dark, gently lifting out 1200 sticks of cured tobacco, placing these on a wagon to be towed off to the barn for storage.

The emptying of a tobacco kiln is a ritual as disciplined as doing your laundry.  After a week of careful curing, the heavy, wet, green layers of tennis rackets have baked to a light bouquet of stiff, golden dish cloths carefully stitched to three-foot-long sticks.  They rustle, and breathe a moist, musky perfume in the early morning. The grower has to evacuate the kiln promptly, as a new harvest will be hung tomorrow.

As the pickers ride off to the field, our tying team revs up the machine table and the sticks are placed into the moving chain by womens’ hands which moments before were finishing thermos mugs of coffee.   They pull in handfuls of tobacco like romaine lettuce for a gourmet chef’s banquet salad.

Off across the yard, the cool dew gives a fuzz to the grass while it drenches my feet, padding back and forth between the tyer and the conveyor.  Up above, our kiln hanger has cranked up his radio which he has hung on the red door of the kiln.  Sonny and Cher beg us, “Baby Don’t Go”.

It’s late August, and we all feel the harvest coming to an end.  Ten more kilns at most.  Ten more days.

Finishing up a harvest is a sobering experience.  The work started four weeks ago, roughly, the result of four months of careful planning and cultivation.  Our clothes are worn and washed out, hands tough, muscles built, our tans are faded, our pockets are full.  But as the coolness pervades the fields, and the sun retreats from its July intensity, everyone senses that the job is just about done.

It was numbing, repetitive, demanding, important work, racking up numbers in the thousands, and millions, if you cared to count. Despite its physical demands, tobacco harvest was a time of freedom, too. Just get the product safely packaged; don’t worry about tomorrow.

Now, decision time.

Some of us go back to school.  Others will stay on the farm, emptying the kilns. There are jobs in town. There’s canning to do.  Still others will go to the next harvest, moving on to pick apples, pumpkins and cabbage.

Overhead, the sun smiles on us, warming our days around noon, and then the clouds move in.

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