Eyes Wide Shutdown

October 16, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

I hated that Kubrick movie but I love the title.  It’s pretty apt for what this government paroxysm is doing to science all over the world.  Take stalled scientific expeditions to Antarctica, where expensive instruments tuned to the pulses of melting ice caps stand in danger of going unmonitored this year.  This doesn’t represent just the waste of hundreds of hours of preparation and analysis.  If the instruments aren’t repaired and tended to this year, they are likely to be lost in the snowy depths and rendered useless.  Because the research is federally funded, it’s on ice, as it were.

In Point Reyes, California, researchers from world-renowned Point Blue Conservation Science are caught at an ornithological impasse.  Formerly known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, this organization has been collecting data on songbirds since 1966.  That’s 46 years of how many of which species are tweeting when and where, how well they are reproducing and how well they are surviving.  In the world of natural science, long data sets are extremely rare.  Until relatively recently, even if researchers had the ambition to collect the painstaking records that reveal the life histories of species, they weren’t able to easily collect it.  Mobile technology, sophisticated statistical programming, and massive computing power have put Big Data at center stage in biodiversity studies.

Point Blue has been at the forefront of this revolution and this year is the second they have deployed sophisticated miniature geolocator tabs to track birds that pass through Point Reyes.  “It’s pretty much changed our lives,” says Tom Gardali of Point Blue’s Palomarin Field Station.  “Before the geolocators, we didn’t really know where the birds went.  Now we do.”  Monitoring Swainson’s thrushes, Gardali and his team have discovered that after wintering here they go to western Mexico near Puerta Vallarta (of course they do).  “This is incredibly important to conservation,” he explains.  “Now we know that this landscape is connected to that landscape.”

On the other hand, Golden Crowned sparrows that find Point Reyes to be their idea of a winter vacation go to Alaska to breed.  “The amazing thing is that they spread out rather drastically,” Gardali says, the wonder of it all evident in his voice.  “They break up and go to different spots along a 1300 km stretch of Alaskan coast. That ties our little West Marin place here with a vast geography.” Most of the shore line of North America is connected through these birds, conjoined at the special locus of Point Reyes.

The birds are following an ancient schedule that operates regardless of the bullies holding fast to their pulpit.  Because Point Reyes is a National Seashore, Gardali and his team are forbidden from counting up the Crowned sparrows that are currently migrating here.  If they fly through without being noted, the expense in both time and dollars of the fancy geolocators will be wasted.  The loss of this year’s data degrades the effort and achievement of the 46 years of data that come before it.  The utility of long term monitoring is that it shows change happening at the scale at which it occurs – at a huge scale over many years and many miles.  Take an arbitrary bite out of that and you thwack the big picture.

As if the insult to the vital increase of basic knowledge weren’t enough, consider the repercussions of the shut down on volunteers.  Not only are the government researchers prevented from doing their work, so are scores of volunteers who help them do it.  The Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary has for 20 years run a Beach Watch monitoring program.  Since 1993 more than 100 highly trained citizen scientists have helped notify the Office of Spill Prevention and Response about signs that an oil pollution event is underway.  Beach Watch volunteers undergo a rigorous 80-hour training before being assigned one of 41 beach segments in the Bay Area to inventory every two to four weeks, taking meticulous note of both live and dead birds and mammals, and documenting oil tarballs.  Beach Watch volunteers are amazingly dedicated and consistent.  This January, assuming we have a functioning government, 15 Beach Watch veterans who have been on the job for 20 years each will be honored by the Sanctuary.

Although they don’t get paid, Beach Watch volunteers are covered by worker’s compensation insurance provided by the federal government – and of course, that is suspended at the moment.  Volunteers have been enjoined to not go out to monitor transects. What this means is that 20 years of consistent data on the state and health of our beaches – which reflect the status of seabirds and marine mammals – will have a big lacuna in it.  This could have a negative impact on future litigation and settlements regarding oil spills and the damage they do to our wildlife, to the health of our ecosystems, to our commercial and recreational experiences on the shore.

The shut-down of Beach Watch also comes at the time of year known informally as “oil spill season.”  Annual current changes bring tarballs from naturally occurring oil seeps along the shores of central and southern California up North.  Winter storms jar the sunken ships that liberally populate our sea floor – many of these went down with fuel aboard.  And of course, there’s the stormy challenge to the constant shipping traffic through San Francisco Bay.  It’s not if there will be another oil event here, it’s when.  But without Beach Watch volunteers monitoring the shores for signs of stressed wildlife and tarballs, knowledge of these events will be delayed, and so will the subsequent response.

Timing is everything in nature, and the monitoring of sea life is particularly important now, at the end of the breeding season.  A high level of bird mortality this time of year reflects the huge effort it takes older birds to fledge the next generation.  Young birds that don’t make it through the ultimate hazing of survival, the challenges faced by their species for millennia, also die in higher numbers this time of year.  The least we owe these sojourners is to witness and note the termination of their existence, intimately tied with our own.  And without full information documented in standardized surveys, we can’t know whether the dead birds on the beach are part of the average fall-out in the struggle for existence, or if they indicate a larger pollution or other human-caused event.

Citizen scientists in general don’t have PhDs.  What they do have is the status, the responsibilities, and the rights that define members of our body politic.  The government shut-down perversely prevents people from fulfilling their roles as citizens?  It voids the heroic commitment of regular people who devote thousands upon thousands of hours each year to helping safeguard our natural capital.  It erases critical links in irreplaceable data sets going back into time.  Stanley Kubrick was trying to get at a lie of the mind Homo sapiens are all too good at telling.  Self-interest occludes what is right, even what is desperately, vitally right.  We wring our hands; the birds fly overhead.  Or die on the beach.

 

Flying on the Umwelt

September 6, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

On Wednesday Allen Fish and I talk umwelt up at Hawk Hill.  Fish is the director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory and commandante of its annual hawk watch – in which more than 300 volunteers cycle through shifts to daily count raptors commuting across the Golden Gate Bridge on their Southern migration.  While Fish takes passionate exception to anyone who might characterize hawks as mystical, regal, majestic, transcendent, and so forth – “that’s all about us,” he says, “and thinking about the birds that way has never done them any good” – he nevertheless has quite the poetic side and it’s fun to muse on life’s big questions with him.

We didn’t exactly use the term umwelt, which has some pretty specific connotations in the world of semiotics, but which is also colloquially useful to describe the felt thisness of the world.   Fish and I discuss how every generation has a sense of what nature is based on what’s there when they look at it.  “Think about what this place looked like before the city was built, a couple of hundred years ago,” Fish says.  We don’t know what’s been lost because we didn’t watch it go.  “If we knew we’d probably weep.”

I started with Fish’s hawk watch last year as part of my research for a book I’m tentatively calling Citizen Scientist. (I may call it Citizen Science.  Or maybe some variation of The Snake, the Seeker and the Smartphone, which Ken-Ichi Ueda came up with.  Kibbitzing on this subject is most welcome.)  So – although I’m watching for hawks, I’m also watching the watchers.  With raptors, this gets deep, because these “birds of prey” are also constantly watching.  In fact, one of my favorite sights is a gliding hawk with its head at a 90-degree angle to its body – a model of absolute focus on the ground and what little critter might be moving across it.

Hawkwatching is a crazy, cosmic, exhilarating, and exhausting activity.  Wednesday we count more than 250 birds over about a six and a half hour period.  Long stretches of time go by with no birds.  Then someone calls out, “juvenile red-tail North,” and then there are four birds and then suddenly you are choosing to keep your binoculars on just one because sun is refracting through its wings and you can really see its thisness, the fact that it is yes a juvenile red-tail and not an adult red-shouldered, for example.

All last year I watched and wondered, why hawks?  There are so many gorgeous birds out there, and no lack of bird-lovers, but the group at Hawk Hill are raptor-bent.  Wednesday I slap myself on the head for ever asking this ridiculous question.  Hawks most beautifully dart and glide and swoop and then shudder a moment, wings gathered then extended again.  Ravens and crows do a fun dance but it isn’t as pretty.  Hawks appear to be darning up the sky and making its fabric.  That’s no mystical, regal, transcendent thought – it’s a biological observation.  Hawks are top predators so have an outsized impact on the rest of the food chain.  Most obviously, they keep rodent populations in check.  They are sky-dwellers but their impact extends to the geological carbon cycle, which is created partly through food-web interactions, partly through the abiotic cycle of uplift and erosion that gives us ground.  Hawks stitch earth and air together.

There’s a lot to see from Hawk Hill, including the peregrinations of fog over the water.  Sunlight reflecting striated on the bay momentarily assumes a pattern that looks just like the orderly mottle of the hawk’s wings.  “We have no trouble understanding that plants, animals, insects, birds, are all products of and reflect the environment,” Fish notes.  “But we keep ourselves separate from that.”  He laughs at the absurd disconnect.  “We don’t understand that we look like we do and even think like we do because we’re part of the world, its evolution.”  That’s umwelt for you.

If you are around tomorrow I’ll be giving a presentation on The Spine of the Continent at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California.  Saturday, September 7 at 4 p.m.  Free.

The Snake, the Seeker and the Smartphone

August 8, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

 

Effective communication about the environment, check.  Inspiration to address threats to Earth processes, check.  Community of like-minded people who want to help, check check check check. 

The subtitle was:  can tech save biodiversity? The members of the panel I moderated last night at the Commonwealth Club of California were Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie from iNaturalist.org, and Tanya Birch from Google Earth.  With his black hair flopping around a yellow bandana, Ueda set the tone for the evening by talking about how he came to invent iNaturalist.  A self-described nature nerd and computer geek, Ueda put two of his passions together to help connect people with the denizens of the great outdoors, and with each other.  Utilizing a smartphone or combining a camera with a gps device, users make “observations” of insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, plants, birds, and fungi and associate these with a latitude and longitude, a date and a time.  Uploaded to iNaturalist, they become part of a great inventory of nature.  He described the satisfaction of looking for, and finding, creatures, and sharing these instances of attention, noticing, and communion with other nature lovers.  He talked about the wonder of seeing three species of bird on a stretch of Market Street, then noticing a lone hawk perched above on an office tower; this vision, he said, gave him “solace.”

Of course I’m singing (or screaming) in the choir but I felt Ueda’s testimony was just the right sort of precursor to evoke receptivity in folks who otherwise may turn away from nature’s dire problems.  (In upcoming weeks and months, expect even more terrible news about what’s happening to our planet – the 5th International Panel on Climate Change will start publishing reports, and well you know.  It’s not good news.)  Loarie pointed out that species are going extinct at a rate that is about 100 percent faster than the background extinction that is a part of time’s arrow.  He mentioned that human beings use up 60 percent of the energy yielded by the sun – we are gobbling up far more than our share. Loarie is a scientist among whose relevant publications include The Velocity of Climate Change, and he knows a thing or two about why and how scientists use data about species to help figure out how to help them.  iNaturalist is a tool the rest of us can use for fun, but when iNat’s expert verification system gives an observation its imprimatur, it gets uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, a vast database in use by scientists all over the world.  An example of how iNaturalist can be used to more local effect is the Vermont Atlas of Life.  What we need is for every region and state to establish similar projects.

Perhaps the central utility of technology is its ability to help reconcile the local and the global.  Thus tribespeople in Brazil, armed with smartphones provided by Google Earth, are measuring the carbon sequestered in their ancestral forest to be valued in a carbon market.  Illegal logging can be instantly reported and dealt with in short order.  The story of the Surui was one inspiration from Tanya Birch; another was a project in Jane Goodall’s neck of the woods, where African chimpanzees are threatened with loss of their habitat.  Birch talked about turning poachers into citizen scientists.

Many of us walk around knowing that our cushy Western life-style is a distinct part of the problem here.  But it can feel impossible to do anything consequential about it.  If you have to drive to work, you have to drive to work.  Here’s something you can do:  get an iNaturalist account (free).  Go outside.  Look for critters.  And if you happen to be in the Bay Area, check out the rest of this month’s biodiversity programming at the Commonwealth Club, including my own presentation August 29.  I have a nifty slide show.

 

Core of the Core

July 22, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Looking out over Coyote Valley, the built environment of San Jose is visible.  I can see the literal outlines of “Silicon Valley”: buildings and “campuses” housing Genentech, IBM, AMD, Yahoo, etc. Measured by the billions of people who are virtually linked through just two of these behemoths, Google and Facebook, it’s fair to say this is the center of the world as we know it.  The anthropocentric world, that is.

Behind me, the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Over on the other side of the Valley, the Diablo Range.  All is green right here but not exactly quiet.  A fluttering curtain of birds accompanies a tractor as it churns the Earth.  The birds are after the rousted insects.  Bigger birds – more raptors hang out right here than anywhere else in California – make stealth forays after the smaller passerines.

Coyote Valley is recognized by many as essential to the continued health of the greater San Jose area, to Santa Clara County, indeed, to the health of central inland as well as coastal California.  This one little piece of land, 7000 acres, is virtually the last relatively wild connection between mountain ranges.  Much of it is agriculturally-purposed, but as the birds attest, the wildlife have made use of that.  In turn, the birds of course keep pest populations in check, which benefits the farmers.

Walking along Coyote Creek, hawks fly overhead; animals without wing power have to find a way to get across bifurcating Highway 101, and indeed they do, using an underpass.  Their treks have been captured by cameras operated by wildlife corridor technicians from nearby DeAnza Community College.  Not only is this territory prime for allowing critters to keep on keeping on, it also provides an outdoor lab for students learning how nature works.

One of the reasons Silicon Valley has become such a popular locus for the technology revolution is that it is darn beautiful here.  The weather is salubrious, perhaps too hot in the most intense part of summer, but mostly temperate.  This is a place people want to live.  It is one of the main tenants of conservation biology that keeping natural areas connected keeps all the works in motion.  That means that the wilderness left here in Coyote Valley performs an outsized service in keeping San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara the highest performing metropolitan area in the United States (according to the Milken Institute). You would think armed guards would be on sentry to make sure a mountain lions passing from one range to another can do so without getting hit by a car.

The Santa Clara Open Space Authority, in purchasing about 350 acres of Coyote Valley, have protected a bit of it.  Coyote Ridge, visible across Bailey Avenue, is doubly spared from development because it is too hard to build on, and because it is habitat for endangered species including the Bay checkerspot butterfly.  Various municipal habitat plans protect Coyote Valley at least through 2040 – hopefully by that time, we will have learned to look at the landscape differently.  Instead of seeing acres upon which to put housing development, we will see our own circulatory system, and we will understand our own role in helping it to flow.

If You Mow It, They Will Come

June 7, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Stu Weiss and I are strolling at Edgewood Park and Preserve, a bucolic swath of greenery just south of San Francisco in San Mateo County, California.  Here, Weiss and his fellow scientists from the Creekside Center for Earth Observation aid and abet the citizenry in helping to resuscitate populations of the Bay Checkerspot Butterfly and the San Mateo Thornmint, both endangered species.  Weiss’s team has laid out a transect in which they are counting up thornmint stalks.  Their focus on the sparse plants is so close, they look like surgeons at a green operating table.

Weiss and I walk over to a hillside facing Interstate 280, the very road by which I had travelled to meet him.  Cars wing endlessly past.  I used to commute along what some call the most beautiful highway in America, with the Santa Cruz Mountains on the one side and the golden hills on the other.   But listening to Weiss tell me about his work here, I realize I have never quite seen this place before.

Weiss points out that behind us the hillside getting full sun “could be Southern California.”  There is a tangle of chaparral, sage, chemise and deer wood.  Beyond the highway, the mountains are full of oak woodlands and Doug fir.  It’s a different microclimate over there.  Weiss points out a small smudge of lighter vegetation in the dark green tangles.  “There’s a stand of chaparral,” he says.  “Ready to take off.”

What I might describe as ample purview for a traditional California landscape painting Weiss sees perhaps as Seurat or Van Gogh would have done.  One pretty scene to me is to Weiss a mosaic of geology, vegetation type, aspect in relation to the sun and rainfall, and atmosphere  – not only full of too much CO2 but thanks to the steadily streaming cars, too much nitrogen.

And not only does Weiss see the invisible gases, he sees into the future.  Weiss and other scientists studying what global change is doing to biodiversity wrangle over the concept of “climate space.”  When he says the chaparral are ready to take off, he means that as temperatures rise and the landscape gets drier, much of the mixed hardwood forests we are looking at could disappear, and plants like chaparral could take over.  Microclimates result from a myriad of inputs, and these are being reshuffled.  The future will be a different picture altogether.

Weiss reminds me that the highway is built along the San Andreas fault line, the result of the two converging tectonic plates, the Farallon and the North American.  Some of the resulting rocks from the mash-up of the plates between 35 and 165 million years ago are serpentine – California’s official state rock.  Serpentine is why we are standing here.  Nutrient-poor, the limitations of serpentine soil have created a refugia for endemic plants and animals, including Plantago erecta, upon which the Bay Checkerspot depends.

The trouble for the Bay Checkerspot right here is the traffic.  Nitrogen in the cars’ exhaust actually fertilizes the soil, making it hospitable to the invasive Italian rye grass that grows up higher than the Plantago erecta.  Eventually the grass thatches over and suffocates the natives beneath.  The butterfly can’t get to its favorite food and perishes.

Oh the world and our woes! But there is a solution, here, and Weiss figured it out.  “Grazing and mowing,” he says, simply.  In other beleaguered Bay Checkerspot habitat Weiss has successfully argued for cattle grazing to keep the rye grass low enough that the native flowers can get some space.  This piece of habitat is too small for cattle so the county mows it once a year.  “It’s really like gardening,” says Weiss.  “You have to take care of each piece of land.”  And then the butterflies will come.

The Powers that Be

May 20, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Sometimes climate change seems like a downright good idea.  The global re-boot of conditions on Earth is a take-all-prisoners phenomenon.  Confronting its challenges requires absolutely everybody into the pool.  I wondered, for example, at the sheer marvelous variety of the speakers lined up at the Bay Area Open Space Council‘s annual conference last week.  Other than perhaps the funeral for a head of state, what other subject brings a two-star Marine general and an Episcopal priest onto the dais?Retired Major General Anthony Jackson spoke about “why nations fight and fail.” The Reverend Canon Sally Bingham spoke about “choosing life over death and destruction.” The God of War and the God of Love may ordinarily rule separate hemispheres but under global change, the whole celestial sphere is at issue, and these two leaders know it.  

The Bay Area Open Space Council is one of my favorite organizations.  Its very structure and purpose pursue the goal of “collective impact” that was the topic for this year’s conference.  Over the past several years, a paper from the Stanford Social Innovation Review has percolated through the nonprofit community.  “Collective Impact” poses a fairly simple paradigm:  small groups working under the rubric of a common cause directed by an organizing entity can achieve social reform at the scale necessary to make a difference.  I read this paper with glee when it came out, because it articulates exactly what the landscape initiative called The Spine of the Continent is all about.  A tiny nonprofit, Wildlands Network, keeps its hand on the pulse of more than 40 organizations ranged along the Rockies, to help them coordinate efforts to achieve connectivity between natural areas.  The Spine of the Continent is a great example of “collective impact,” because without such coordination, not only the effort will fail, but nature will fail.

As I wander through the land of environmental nonprofits, I’m always asking myself:  what works?  Because on one level, nothing is working.  Every year more land and water is converted to human use.  The engines of what literary critic Leo Marx calls “the Faustian drive” are stoked and fanned by what has become an increasingly disconnected and lethal passion for more.  Fantastic organizations and people at the helms of land trusts and science-based research institutions and nonprofits are doing truly indispensable work to target and protect critical swaths of land and water – but they will never keep pace with the Faustian lust for development.  It will take a critical mass of individuals having an “aha” moment about what we need to do here, and then holding hands and doing it, to stem the destruction.  That’s why I like citizen science so much – it’s all about collective impact.  Collective impact depends on multiple single hearts turning, impelling multiple hands to stretch out and work together.

The panel I moderated at the conference was a case study of where collective impact is at these days and where it needs to go.  Kristeen Penrod unveiled a tremendous effort she spear-headed, “Bay Area Critical Linkages,” a book-size document that tells where and how to achieve connectivity here.  Wendy Eliot talked about the door-to-door, muddy-knees approach to actually getting a single corridor protected in Sonoma County.  And Kirk Lenington talked about an even more precisely geo-located effort to support underpasses and culverts down the Peninsula to allow mountain lions to keep on trucking without getting hit by them.  Lenington’s mountain lions have to be connected with areas similar to the one Eliot is working in, which in turn have to be safely nestled within a larger matrix such as delineated in Penrod’s tome.  What the Bay Area Open Space Council does so well is to create a community setting for these people to share knowledge and war stories.  For their own work to succeed, their colleagues’ work has to succeed.  They have to hold hands to get their work done.

General Jackson reminded the audience that again and again great civilizations have risen based on exploiting resources.  Then they exhaust the substance of their vitality, and fall.  “Now we study their bones,” he said.  The Reverend Bingham called climate change “the most important moral issue of our day.”  She said that caring for creation is “God’s work.”  And we would do well to remember that there’s another fellow up at bat here, promising us the same things he offered Faust: riches, ease, power and control.  We think we can follow him just so far, and that we will step off his golden conveyor belt in time to save our own souls.  Both the general and the priest stare this fellow down and we would do well to take a closer look at his identity as well. 

Of Time and the River

May 2, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

We tend to think of the things of man and the things of nature as separate.  The way we categorize say waterfalls, mountains, and birds as existing in a realm apart from furniture, paintings, and clothing could supply a generation’s worth of doctoral dissertations.  One place where “natural” and “cultural” come together in an institutional embrace is the National Park System (NPS).  The NPS has  intertwined duties to steward both the natural and the cultural resources in our protected areas.  Salmon are nature but have a central cultural role for indigenous peoples.  The remnants of ancient settlements were built by humans but have become features of landscape.

I was thinking about the beauty and example of this responsibility while Kim Besom, curator of the museum at Grand Canyon, gave me a tour of some of its treasures.  Grand Canyon is a gigantic empty space, no?  No.  Things have come in and out of it, people, animals, artifacts.  The museum at Grand Canyon isn’t a place of display as you might expect, but a series of rooms with oddball things in it.  Including dung from prehistoric giant sloths.  These sloths were about 8 feet tall at the shoulder.  (The remains of giant ground sloths in L.A.’s La Brea tar pits are 10-12 feet tall.)  Why save the dung?  We can see what they ate in it.  It helps us build a bit of a story around what their world looked like, how they lived.

Besom showed me some prime bones from her “Quaternary collection.” The Quaternary is a geological epoch that includes the Pleistocene from which the sloth slunk forth and the Holocene, to which we now belong — though some have called for a renaming of our era to Anthropocene, to reflect the impact Homo sapiens is currently having on even the geological cycle.  It would appear we are breaking the back of time itself.

Among Besom’s other treasures are the long-fanged top of a jaw thought to be a mountain lion until Jim Mead, from nearby Northern Arizona University, suggested it is probably from the now extinct American cheetah.  Besom showed me trays of beautiful “split twig figures” that are 3-5,000 years old.  For many years these were the earliest evidence of humans at Grand Canyon.  They look like well-made childrens’ toys, but some of them have drops of dung (again!) inside them, indicating their use in hunting rituals.  “They hardly look their age,” Besom remarked with fondness.  More recently evidence of Clovis and Folsom spear points have been added to her collection – some of these peoples evidently roamed these lands more than 10,000 years ago.  The Clovis are credited with hunting many of the giant Pleistocene animals to extinction.

“We look at this pottery like it was no big deal for early people to make it,” Besom told me, showing me gorgeous bowls (“this one is for the fancy dinner parties”).  “But it was a very big deal.  People had  to travel to get the good clay.  They had to travel sometimes 100 miles to gather wood to fire it when they had deforested the area close to their settlement.” While there is no doubt Native American peoples have had a much more salubrious relationship with the things of nature than Anglos have, there is plenty of evidence that tribes exhausted resources just like Europeans-Americans did/do.

Closer to the present day, but still tucked well behind the scrim of history, are Besom’s artifacts related to John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War general who famously first mapped the Colorado Plateau.  Powell’s watch from his second trip down the Colorado River sits handsome and large on a temperature-controlled shelf.  “People have called to ask what time it is stopped on,” Besom told me.  “I have to remind them that he didn’t die the minute the watch stopped.”  She also has a piece of burnt wood that is apparently a piece of one of Powell’s boats, the only extant remnant of the arks that carried him down the Colorado River.  By the way, he strapped himself to a rocking chair on his boat.  Well, why not.  Even the oldest thing in Besom’s collection barely registers on the time-scale evidenced by Grand Canyon itself.  Powell had his moment in history – and evidently knew how to enjoy the ride.

Rock On

April 24, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

This past weekend the National Park Service (NPS) hosted me at Grand Canyon, and I gave the keynote talk for its Earth Day celebration to a crowd that hailed from all over the world.  It wasn’t the only vertiginous aspect of the trip.  I hiked down into the canyon one day with rangers Marty Martel and Pam Edwards, and got a new appreciation for the word “steep.”  Another day I took a long stroll along the rim, transfixed by new views at every frequent turn.  The truly grand facade stares at you, timeless.  But of course time is what makes it.  As my observation telescoped and expanded to try and (unsuccessfully) comprehend,  a raptor silhouette made a long, graceful stitch in the scene.  I couldn’t tell if it was one of the California condors that have been successfully reintroduced to the park (though the population remains threatened by poisoning from lead bullets), but if it was, the prehistoric bird brought a pretty deep stretch of historical time into the present.  The California condor has a wing-span of 9-feet.  Against the scale of the canyon, size like that hardly counts.  Could have been a turkey vulture, with a 5-foot wingspan.

Tagging along with Martell, beginning with his 7:30 am roll call with about 15 other “interps,” or park ranger interpreters, I got a glimpse of a day in the life.  One ranger was off to New York City, to help Sesame Street introduce a new puppet to the show, a park ranger!  This makes me happy.  Martell told me about encountering an East Indian octogenarian in robes one day, who told him that as an 8-year old he had seen photos of Vishnu Temple Peak in National Geographic and had wanted ever since to come see it.  Martell pointed out the glorious peak, in a line of other religio-historically named formations, like Wotan’s Throne, Solomon Temple, and Tower of Ra.  The names furnish a drapery of human history on rocks that are orders of magnitude older than even our most ancient spiritual traditions.  Martell told me the seeker wept with joy upon seeing Vishnu Temple Peak, hugged him, and moved on.  As ephemeral as our naming might be, it helps evoke and contain the sense of transcendence and destiny to which the rocks otherwise silently testify.  Or so we feel/think.

Ah, the human.  When he introduced me to the gathered crowd, Martell told them about how one of the major topics of my books, trophic cascades, is impacting the park.  Indeed all of us could see it everyday – rangy elk chomping down every little bit of greenery between the signage and the stones.  Martell explained that mountain lions do range in the outer precincts of the park, but not close to the human presence; the elk know what side of the canyon their bread is buttered on.  He mentioned discussions about bringing the wolf back to Grand Canyon’s ecosystem.  That they deal with such difficult complexities in the human-wildlife balance, or lack of it, is another reason to value and respect our park rangers.

On Sunday I manned a table of books with Phil Payne, from the Grand Canyon Association, who after hearing my rap several times became better at articulating it than I am, and helped explain both the science and the entertainment value of the book.  All weekend I heard murmurings from park rangers that their boss, Superintendent Dave Uberuaga, “is awesome,” and there he was, gamely dressed in plastic bags in honor of Earth Day, chatting with little children and not even scaring them!  Grand Canyon is impressive in every way, including, in fact, the human way, and these good folks are stewarding this treasure with seriousness and love.  Now remember, it’s still National Parks week, which means entry fees are waived – so go see for yourself!

 

The Beauty-Death Transaction

April 14, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

Crazy gorgeousness, check.  At Duxbury Reef in Bolinas early yesterday morning, a super low tide pulled back the covers not only on all those squirmers and clingers making colorful hay in the kelp, but revealed the geological formation that makes this reef the biggest rocky intertidal in the West.  Duxbury is right at the conjunction of two major plates, the Pacific and the North American.  You can visibly see where one big time-frame era is laid against another.  The reef parallels crumbling cliffs like a double hem stitching the edge of the landscape.

But my mind wasn’t blown until about midday, on my way home.  My friend Diane had alerted me that “the egrets are back” at Audubon Canyon Ranch, and I stopped by to look at two species of these prehistoric white birds building nests in trees, some of them already sitting on eggs that will hatch around Mother’s Day.  On my way up the short loop to the main observing spot, I stopped at a lookout over Bolinas Lagoon.  The low tide made it a mud flat.  The docent offered me a telescope and a look at an unusual grebe.  “But what’s that there?” I said.  It looked like two deer were mucking about at the shore, but something was not quite right.  I picked up a pair of binoculars.  A small female deer was wobbling around with a bloody haunch.  Her companion was not another deer.

It took a few minutes to register what I was seeing.  The doe – no antlers or antler buds on the head — was clearly injured but didn’t otherwise look discomfited.  The other animal was a few feet away, worrying something in the grass, or eating.  Ah yes, eating.  The doe took a few steps to the left.  And a fluffy coyote lifted its head and took a lunge at her – straight at her bloody wound.  The deer seemed tolerant.  I began to obsessively anthropomorphize — any way to try to grasp the situation.  The coyote was like a fussy art director, or a mother herding kids in a parking lot, or a police officer keeping a crowd in line, taking a moment here or there to keep the doe within its control but then with seeming nonchalance, stepping away to chew more thoroughly. 

The docent was soon transfixed as well.  “I’m a writer,” I told him.  “I just spent a couple of years in all these wild places in the Rockies and never once saw a big predator take down a big prey.  It’s so weird that I’m seeing this right here on the lagoon!”  In the not too far distance, a big sand bar was ringed with sunning black ellipses – seals – punctuated regularly by little black commas – their young.  The way they curved and the way the sand bar curved was just like the way the reef and the cliffs curved.   Nature has its patterns and its processes — and predation is one of the prime-movers of all that we see.

I continued on the trail to watch the egrets.  There were plenty of them, snowy egrets and great egrets, doing their plumage showing, rearranging the twigs in their nests.  Another docent said, “the males and the females spend equal time sitting on the eggs.  They share all the household duties.”  The egrets are so pure white, their feathers so soft and luminous against the dark redwood branches, it cooled my mind to watch them.  Until I remembered that when the chicks hatch, mom and dad will look on while the two biggest siblings kick the smallest hatchling out of the nest.  Family systems theory, anyone?

I swung by to check on the doe-coyote drama below.  The doe was dead, a turkey vulture having at it.  “A man got out of a car to see what was going on,” the docent told me.  “The coyote scooted away.”  The docent then went on to tell me the deer had gotten stuck out in the mud flats earlier in the day and a sheriff and humane officer had lifted her out on a canvas tarp, depositing her safely on land, so they thought.  He told me it was likely the coyote had chased her into the mud to begin with, but the officers hadn’t known about that.  He shook his head at nature red in tooth and claw and remarked that even the benign looking seals herd fish up onto the mud where they can’t get away.  All very interesting but this docent’s powers of observation soon came into question.  “There was a writer here today,” he told me. “She’s been all over the Rockies and never seen anything like this.”  “Is that so?” I said.  One last look before I got into my car and back to San Francisco – the coyote had returned to the scene. Evidently better than the docent at paying attention.

 

 

Get back, Loretta

March 23, 2013 | Uncategorized | Permalink

I shared a booth with three other writers at the Tucson Festival of Books recently – an enormous and idiosyncratic celebration each year on the campus of the University of Arizona right in the heart of town. Between the four of us, we just about represented the main issues in life. There was Mary Paganelli, author of The Food Lover’s Guide to Tucson, and Terry Sterling, a heavy-hitter journalist and author of Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona’s Immigration War Zone. Sam Lowe’s book Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Arizona History magnetized passersby who invariably picked it up, said “this should be longer,” and ended up buying Mary’s food guide. Ted Danson, tanned and smoothly coiffed, sold his book on the ocean across the fairway from us.

I hung out some with Rick Brusca, a senior emeritus type of guy, whose book, A Natural History of the Santa Catalina Mountains, was written with entymologist Wendy Moore, and sold more than 50 copies at the festival. That’s right! Probably more than Danson sold. People in Arizona love where they live. They should. It’s amazingly beautiful, serene when you get two seconds out of town, and filled with still-vibrant wildlife. Half the bird species in North America hang out in the Sky Islands, unique forested mountains separated by desert and grassland “seas.” The landscape is so dry you shrivel a little more with each breath, yet the overall visual seems aqueous. It’s the desert light and the immense expanse of otherworldly horizon.

“Don’t go North though,” Brusca warned me. “That’s the dark hell hole of the universe,” confirmed Rod Mondt, a founder of the Sky Island Alliance who still works there. The SIA was hatched at about the same time as Wildlands Network with the same idea –to promote large landscape connectivity – and does a really great job of advocating for the southern portion of the Spine of the Continent, including issues around what many will say is the single most destructive act ever against wildlife, the border wall. They were referring to Phoenix, of course, home of jugular-popping gun-toters who sleep on red, white and blue pillows. 

So much of the mountainous West bears a similar contradictory signature – groovy, earnest nature-loving enlightened types living side by side with those who are not. There is still a lot of space in the West, so people don’t really have to blend or compromise. The Sky Islands themselves can be similarly described. Each big “island,” or mountain, has a different profile, their endemic flora and fauna having been isolated from others of their kind over the millenia. Nature that exists here is found nowhere else – and in aggregate, is munificent. But here they coexist peacefully, as, you guessed it, we do not. (Click on the map and you can see it bigger — fascinating confluence of biotic influences create a singular mashup of fantastic species.)