Friday, October 30, 2009

Oh, say can you see why I like it?

A friend phoned me on a Saturday afternoon in September, just as the Meridian Lions Club Rodeo was getting started. I was in the stands digesting my rodeo burger and thinking about a beer chaser as I waited for the Grand Entry.

My friend, Ted, called to talk about statistics. He’s a rancher near Mountain Home, ID and he thinks about statistics and data quite often, especially when they're used to argue that cattle should be banned from public land.

Ted heard the rodeo announcer over my shouting as I ducked behind the stands to talk to him. I was eager to talk to him but I didn’t want to miss the national anthem at the start of the rodeo. I'm a sentimental fool about the Star Spangled Banner.

Years ago a former boyfriend accused me of not being sentimental. Although I didn’t admit it, I had (and still have) every love letter he wrote me (we dated long before email). I only occasionally admit to being sentimental about the national anthem.

Although it’s not an easy song to sing, or even to listen to sometimes, it reminds me that I’ve got a pretty good deal in life. As a woman who grew up in a not-very-prosperous family, I doubt I would have the education I do if I had been born just about anywhere else in the world. More importantly, my education led to my challenging, interesting jobs.

If I had been born in the Senegalese village where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer, I would have aspired to marrying and raising a family. By now I would be the CEO of a large household with several daughters-in-law to do the actual work: I would spend my days supervising them and shouting at the grandchildren.

As it is, I spend my days as a scientist: thinking, writing, questioning, and traveling. I have had perhaps more than my share of interesting jobs: cutting hay on the drumlins of upstate New York, unraveling the mystery of invasive grasses in the Sonoran Desert and the Intermountain West, and helping Senegalese farmers store peanut seed and plant trees.

I think about this whenever I hear the national anthem. I always wish the audience were invited to sing along, but I usually change my mind by the time the singer struggles and quavers through the tricky parts. As Ted and I wound up our conversation he said, “The best way to hear the national anthem is with the bareback broncs providing the bass line.”

Our bareback horses were waiting in the metal chutes for the first bucking event when I got back to my seat. They stood quietly during the song, but even without an equine bass beat the anthem was moving.

The fulfilling life I have is hard to beat and it would be hard to replicate anywhere else. It makes up for suffering through the world’s longest presidential campaigns and soporific precinct caucuses, learning spelling and grammar developed by a committee that couldn't agree on anything, and having a nearly unsingable national anthem.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Shrubs versus Trees

I like living places where most of the plants are shorter than I am.

I depend on a view of the mountains to navigate in downtown Boise, where the streets follow the river as it meanders through the old part of town. I live up on the Bench, away from the claustrophobic riparian area, and where the well-behaved street grid follows the section lines.

Working out on the Sagebrush Sea, I navigate by the solemn Owyhee Mountains and the almost heartbreakingly beautiful Lost River Range. I wake up in a forest of sagebrush, which shrinks when I get out of my sleeping bag and stand up. Sagebrush is a self-effacing plant that hides in plain sight over much of the West and doesn’t block my view of the mountains.

My friend Caitlin lives in northwest North Dakota, surrounded by canola fields. She posted a photo of one, stretching to the horizon, on her Facebook page. Below it her friends debated the usefulness and advisability of trees. I contributed, “I’m Cindy and I’m afraid of trees.”

Caitlin’s friend Nancy tried shock therapy with a link to a photograph of a tree she considers a friend.

I clicked on the link and a tree is the size of an apartment building appeared. It had grasping, hungry branches ready to catch and imprison unsuspecting passersby. It waited patiently for the opportunity to drop limbs on top of chattering, laughing children on their way to school. The tree would die fulfilled and ascend instantly to the highest level of Tree Heaven if it managed to topple over on top of a crowd that had gathered beneath it to shelter from a sudden thunderstorm.

Even if none of the tree’s nefarious hopes ever come to fruition, it still blocks the view for several city blocks. It flatly refuses to let other plants grow underneath it by greedily using up all the sunlight that reaches it. And it practices a pernicious form of spatial hegemony as it dominates a large part of the otherwise peaceful town of Thomasville, GA.

Concerned about what sort of town would allow this danger, I investigated. Mapquest showed me a town with streets laid out in untidy, vaguely radiating spokes that look like a web spun by a spider on LSD. At an elevation of 279 feet there are no mountains nearby for navigating, even if you could see past the tree.

I’ll stay safe here in Boise, where most of the plants are shorter than I am.