Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dusty Doright

I’ve only used the “No” word one time with Dusty Dog. He was crunching something in his teeth after checking out an intriguing-smelling hole in the ground. "Dusty, no”! He rushed over to reassure me, a dead ringer for Oatmeal's dog.

Dusty’s human, Mollie, rarely uses that word, either. His favorite food is Anything the Cat Didn’t Eat (he’s allowed to clean up leftovers). Dusty could help himself to Everything the Cat Didn’t Eat Fast Enough with an short hop onto the chair next to the cat’s bowl. But he stays on the floor. Dusty could chew up shoes, backpacks, sofas, and pillows. But he limits himself to shedding gobs of hair the size of dachshunds on all of the above. Dusty could get into the trash or the closet where his food and treats are stored, but he doesn’t seem interested.

Mollie says Dusty behaves out of gratitude for being rescued from the pound. Another friend, who also saved her dog from the noisy, chaotic pound, says her dog keeps a close eye on her, so she doesn't disappear.

Early this spring, when the sun was rising late, Mollie left for work at oh-dark-thirty. Her work phone rang later that morning. It was her next-door neighbor; he had tracked her down through her employer.

The neighbor had looked out his back window to see Dusty carefully inventorying all the exciting odors in the wrong backyard. Morning light revealed Dusty's wooden stockade fence flat on the ground, keeping the newly growing grass in place. The neighbor worried that Dusty might wander into the street and get hurt.

Mollie was swamped at work and didn't know when she could get away. But she knew her dog. She told her neighbor to address Dusty, point to their house, and say, “Git home!”

Mollie's neighbor did just that. Dusty looked up at the man, considered it, and trotted back to his porch. He was still there when Mollie broke away from work and got home to put him inside and close up his dog door.

When I visited Dusty later that week for his walk, we hung out in back for a while. He stayed in his yard and kept an eye on the neighborhood activities. He likes the view a lot better with the fence out of the way.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Extreme Mustang Makeover, the Bud Edition

As a child, I was enchanted by the story of "Wild Horse Annie" fighting to save America's free-roaming horses. I was desperate to leave boring junior high in snoozeville Minneapolis and head west. I dreamed of spending all day outside on a horse and sleeping under the stars every night.

As an adult, I live in the West and sleep outdoors more than most people would want to. But the "wild" (they're actually feral) horse question is more complicated than it seemed in junior high.


The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reports that almost 50,000 feral horses and burros still roam the western range. The agency, which manages the federal lands where the animals live, also houses a similar number in pens and pastures.

The BLM periodically rounds up and removes some of the horses so they don't interfere with other uses of public land. The agency tries to find homes for them, but their corrals are starting to look like the Humane Society during kitten season. In 2013, only 2,671 horses and burros were adopted, less than half the number adopted in 2005. A steady parade of horses leave the range and end up in the permanent limbo of BLM holding facilities.

A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report points out that the BLM doesn't actually know how many feral horses roam the West. The NAS detected a lot of guesstimating in the agency's counting process, but was able to conclude that the horse population is growing 15-20% per year.


The report's most discouraging finding is the reason for the rapid growth rate: the BLM's removal program. When there are fewer horses on the range, there's more food for those left; the remaining horses get busy and make more horses. Although birth control would be a humane solution, the NAS doubted that it alone could reduce population growth to a sustainable rate.

The Mustang Heritage Foundation tells the story of the free-roaming horses that fired my imagination as a child. Their Extreme Mustang Makeover springs a handful of lucky horses from BLM limbo and pairs them with experienced trainers. Each pair has 100 days to get ready for the show ring, after which the horses find new homes at auction. The transformation from wary mustang to confident companion was recorded in the documentary Wild Horse Wild Ride. Spoiler alert: get your hankies out; the auction breaks up some close cross-species friendships.

My friend Matt Livengood was selected to participate this year. He's teaching This Bud’s for You (Bud, for short) everything he needs to know to be a safe, relaxed, equine partner for a successful bidder. A group of friends got together at Matt and Alayne's Sweet Pepper Ranch on Memorial Day. After a barbeque, beverages, and bantering, we gathered at Bud's corral to watch his progress.

Matt had Bud's saddle and bridle on before I got my camera out. Bud was already a pro at this part.

Matt had been putting weight on the saddle for many days...

...and even lying across the saddle while he patted Bud, swung the stirrup back and forth, and got Bud used to the strange things people do when they ride horses.

There were lots of human and canine spectators offering Bud advice during his lesson.

Whoa! Once in a while Bud had to stop and collect himself.

Matt kept working with Bud until...he swung up and sat on him. Bud couldn't believe his eyes; there was a person on his back!

Good job, Bud--and Matt!

Matt and Bud listened to each other constantly during the evening.

Bud looked pleased with himself (and relieved) after his first ride.

Bud even followed Matt without a lead rope. It showed he was paying attention and trying to understand what Matt wanted him to do.

Come watch Bud and Matt in Idaho's first Extreme Mustang Makeover at the Nampa Horse Park, July 25-26. If you languished in junior high, dreaming of roaming the West on horseback, this Bud could be for YOU.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Voting a Sort-of Secret Ballot

Twenty-six percent of Idaho’s registered voters participated in our state's recent primary election. I was one of them. Until this primary, I've honored the secrecy of the voting booth (which is a small, flimsy shelf in Idaho).


While I was dashing to the polls on foot (passers-by might have used the verb "lumbering"), I passed one of the candidates I planned to vote for. When I greeted him, he asked if he had my support. As in, would I vote for him?

Rain splattered the candidate and his sign. His ironed shirt was wrinkling and his hair was matting. A chilly breeze swept in from northern Idaho and tried to send his cardboard sign sailing to Owyhee County. I was cold, despite my raincoat and umbrella. I should have offered the man a piece of my rain gear. But, my support?

He didn't know who I was; could I break my rule? Should I lecture him on the sanctity of our secret ballot? Bore him with my story of visiting the U.S. Voting Rights Museum?

He hadn't asked me if I was going to vote for him, only if I would support him.

"You bet," I said, and hurried on. I was relieved when the rain stopped by the time I'd walked/dashed/lumbered another couple of blocks.

When I told the poll worker my name, she knew my party affiliation: Idaho now has closed primaries. Knowing my party doubles the odds of someone knowing how I voted. That must at least halve the secrecy of my ballot.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Farmington, NM Library Remembers the Past, Plans for the Future

The ancient residents of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, tracked the seasons from rock observatories. Current residents of the nearest large town can track the seasons across the stone floor of the library.

When I visited the Farmington, New Mexico library in mid November, the low noon sun touched the edge of the winter solstice marker engraved into the floor.

If I had visited on December 21st I would have found the phrase “Winter Solstice 12:00” framed in light and the solstice celebration in full swing.

On June 21st the noon sun shines from overhead through a window atop the east door of the library to illuminate the summer solstice marker.
The Farmington Library sought community input while planning their new building, which opened in 2003. The cultures and landscapes of northwest New Mexico are reflected in the Native American and high desert motifs of the building.

The main entrance echoes the east-facing doors of hogans on the Navajo Reservation west of town. The central atrium, where the sun traces the time and space between the solstices, is the heart of the building. The library’s collections and services encircle the atrium and follow the cycle of life in a clockwise circuit.

Life’s journey starts in the Juvenile Collection on the south, moves to the Teen Zone in the west, and continues through the adult nonfiction and fiction sections. Multimedia resources and magazines wait on the east side, next to the entrance.

The library’s round design reflects nature in its paucity of straight lines. Chrome bookshelves fan out to in pie slices in the adult section, between the atrium and the glass wall on the north. The round windows in the interior and exterior walls remind me of portholes.

I checked email and downloaded digital photos and GPS coordinates in the Southwest Collection, protected by legions of kachina dolls dancing in glass display cases.


Beyond the rows of kachina dolls, a modern protector watches over the library’s materials. The Farmington Library was the first in the country where patrons check out all their own books and media. Their system uses radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, instead of the bar codes used at most libraries and in supermarket checkout lanes. The RFID readers in the atrium don’t have to “see” a visible bar code or demagnetize security “tattle tapes.” Borrowed materials just have to be close enough that the machine can scan their RFID tag with radio waves.

Pet owners use RFID tags when they get their cats and dogs “chipped.” If a pet gets lost, their name and owner’s contact information can be read with a hand held scanner.

I first heard of RFID tags in salmon. Thousands of young fish in the Pacific Northwest are tagged and tracked as they swim down the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean and again when they return to inland streams as adults to spawn and die.

I can't help picturing schools of shimmering books leaving the sea of library shelves and heading out into the world through the east entrance. I imagine the books expanding the minds of fifth graders, retired police officers, aspiring carpenters, and middle school teachers before returning to the stacks. Happily, the books, unlike salmon, make many round trips in their lifetimes.

When books return to the library, they are either walked in the front entrance or driven behind the READ sculpture to the automatic return in back. After patrons slide their returns through the slot, the RFID system checks in the materials and provides a receipt and a coupon for $5 off library fines.

This video shows the system in action. The last part, where materials are automatically sorted into bins, reminds me of the automatic gates that open and shut to sort tagged salmon for researchers to study.

The self check out--and in--system frees the library staff to help patrons and answer visitors’ questions. This has transformed the Circulation Desk of my childhood into the Service Desk in the Farmington Library’s atrium. A whiteboard next to the desk tells everyone they count: the board lists the number of people who visited the library and the number of book they checked out (themselves) the previous day. (A helpful commenter, below, pointed out that the numbers in the photo were from a Sunday, when the library is only open for four hours. On other days, 1050 to 1400 people visit the library.)


The library’s circulation system also freed up a security guard to do a short demo for me. He showed me the postage stamp-sized RFID tags inside each book. Then he showed me what happens when someone forgets to scan a book before they leave the library. We got prompt attention from the Service Desk.

The late afternoon sun had slipped below the southwest windows and the patch of light on the floor had disappeared by the time I left the library. I drove west into the sunset to Shiprock, NM before I turned north toward Boise.


The sun has made ten trips back and forth across the floor of the new library building. Last fall, before the winter celebration, the Farmington Library again asked the community to help plan their future. Area residents shared their ideas and hopes for the library in a time of shrinking budgets and growing populations.

The ancient residents of New Mexico faced their own challenges of dwindling resources. Farmington's modern library is meeting its challenges while grounded in the area’s ancient traditions.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Late Winter Rains and Army Cutworms

Boise’s Winter of Ice Fog ended with snow in early February. The ridge of high pressure that smothered us under a season-long inversion finally disbanded. After the snow, a procession of rainstorms washed in from the Pacific.

Rain clouds spawned smiles and the Treasure Valley was suffused with the perfume of damp, spring soil. Ranchers, farmers, wildland fire officers, and water managers cheered the promise of grasses, irrigation water, low forest fire danger, and ample snow pack.

Dusty Dog was knee-deep in cheatgrass on the Boise Green Belt, where an artist had exhausted every shade of green in her paint box.



But the rains were too late to save the cheatgrass in the driest areas along the Snake River, south of town.

A prodigious fall storm had germinated a flush of the winter annual grass, along with its annual mustard cousins. But the plants' good luck didn't last.

Large numbers of miller moths had preceded the rains. The eggs they laid hatched into army cutworms a month or so later. The larvae got down to business eating the green plants.

The dry winter that followed was ideal for the cutworms, which develop fungal diseases in damp weather. But the cheatgrass and mustards struggled in the dry weather. The annual plants died in many areas, from the combination of drought and army cutworms. Perennial grasses, mostly short Sandberg bluegrass, survive on the hills above the cheatgrass dieoffs.



Hungry army cutworms roam the bare areas looking for food...



...or hide under cowpies, out of the wind...



...but within reach of hungry centipedes.



Where there are shrubs, the larvae have become arboreal and climbed sagebrush...



...and fourwinged saltbush, looking for food.



Army cutworms that climb the hills munch on Sandberg bluegrass, which seems able to outgrow the larvae's feeding.



When they run out of plants to eat, the cutworms dine on their fallen relatives.



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Related post: A Plague with an Upside?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dangerous Honking Epidemic Sweeps the Treasure Valley

This public health menace increases heart disease and stroke and threatens driver and pedestrian safety.

The scourge touched me as I walked past the front bumper of an urban cowgirl’s pickup truck in downtown Nampa. The truck’s horn blasted a 100-decibel HONK! I jumped as fight-or-flight chemicals fine tuned by thousands of generations of my nimble ancestors kicked in. Cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine gushed into my bloodstream. My heart pounded, my breathing increased, and my muscles tensed. The driver had waited until she was across the street, safely away from the blast zone, before she hit the lock button on her key fob. She was at the end of the next block, still chatting with her family, when my heart rate and breathing slowed to near normal.

My successfully evolved body prepares me to run or protect myself when I’m drifting off to sleep and a neighbor HONKS outside my bedroom window. And again when he forgets where or not he locked the car after he cracks a beer--HONK. And when he checks again as he’s going to bed--HONK. Each time, more stress chemicals clog my bloodstream, raise my blood pressure, and suppress my immune system.

At 2:25 a.m. another neighbor can’t hear the car HONK with the noise of the bar still ringing in her ears. She HONKS several times. Then it’s just 3½ hours until two robust HONK-HONKS as the remote start roars to life on a third neighbor’s red Dodge Ram truck with after-market muffler.

I fall sleep between the HONKINGS while my risk of heart disease and stroke increase. Loud noises are deadly dangerous and sudden loud noises are even more so.

Car and truck horns are close to the pitch of a human scream for help. The same internal safety system that protects me from noisy, dangerous predators insists I pay attention to the screams of others of my species--whatever is killing them might get me, too! Each HONK alerts me to danger.

Turning left into four lanes of heavy traffic on Fairview, I check two lanes left, two lanes right, look for drivers using the center turn lane as their private driving lane, watch for bicycles and joggers on the sidewalk to the left, to the right, check for cars turning from the street across the intersection, double check for cars to the left, right, bicyclists, joggers, then finally pull ou--HONK! Where?? Who’s going to hit me? Who am I going to hit? I CAN’T SEE WHAT’S WRONG!! Someone locked their car in the parking lot across the street.

"HONK" no longer means “Watch out! You’re in danger!” It means “I’m going inside now.” While being assaulted with deadly sudden noise, we’re being retrained to ignore HONKING while driving and walking. What if we need to warn someone that their life is in danger? What if someone needs to warn us that our life is in danger?

Percy Nilsson drilled holes in the tires of an ice cream truck in Sweden because he wanted to start a conversation on HONKING. The truck’s 100 HONKS per hour drove him to drill.

Just yesterday, I heard HONK, HONK, HONK--blasts from three separate drivers--as I walked the length of the Post Office building on 13th Street in Boise. The trip takes about 1½ minutes, which means an hourly HONK rate of 120: 20% more than the rate that punctured tires in Sweden.

Let’s start a conversation on HONKING in Boise before we have an epidemic of flat tires.

Let’s stop damaging the health of our neighbors and endangering the lives of other drivers and pedestrians. Let’s reprogram our car locking systems to healthy, safe silence. In a pinch, we can resort to the ancient technology on the inside of car doors and the even older one appended to the end of our arm.

Treasure Valley residents, please stop HONKING your neighbors into an early grave. Your neighbors will wave thanks using that same handy appendage.