Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tree in Frost

A pine tree protected an image of itself in frost on the roof of the neighbor's garage this morning. I fear its efforts will be in vain...until the next frosty morning in Boise.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I'm Cindy and I'm a Winter Squashaholic

I am powerless to stop winter squash from leaping off the grocery store display into my grocery cart or from the farmer's market table into my shopping bag. I am weakest in the presence of acorn squash.

I must take the squash home, close the blinds, and lock the door. I cut the cute cucurbits up, place them in a casserole, and cook them briefly in the microwave with the lid on. Then I am driven to remove the lid and pop the casserole into the oven until the smell drives me to retrieve the delectable flesh with shaking hands. I try to remember to use oven mitts.

Completely overcome, I surrender and put butter and salt on the squash's delicious goodness and consume it. At night, I distribute the squash rind evidence among the three dumpsters at my apartment complex.

I am confident that my previously unknown metabolic condition, which produces uncontrollable cravings for tender orange flesh, will be discovered soon. I will not have to hide any longer and I can become the spokesperson for the WSA (Winter Squashaholics Anonymous). Between winter squash seasons I will travel extensively and urge others to seek treatment for the condition.

A recent post on Sarah Lenz's Prose and Potatoes blog forced me to recognize my previously unknown metabolic condition.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Rushing to be Good Citizens

If your true personality comes out when you drive, then I'm in big trouble: I never should have had the gumption to graduate from high school. The only drivers who approach me in mellowness are on the island of Kaua'i.

Island drivers wave you into an endless line of cars crawling toward Lihue on a Friday afternoon. Waiting for the next hick-up forward, they roll down their windows to watch the surfers catching end-of-the-work-week waves. Island drivers thank you with a thumb and pinkie shaka salute when you wave them into line.

Yes, the traffic is heavy and slow; no, we won't get to Kapa'a in time; but the sun is turning the ocean to gold and the guy noseriding the longboard is slicing through the waves like a ship's figurehead. We might as well enjoy the view.

The other evening I uncharacteristically joined the thundering herd of vehicles leaving downtown Boise and wearing their tires to latex dust. Cruising down Front Street I cringed and caved as an SUV loomed on my front fender. I shuddered as a pickup appeared in my back seat at a stoplight. I avoided a Corolla wandering across lane markers while its driver laughed on a cell phone.

A white Suburban stitched a path from one lane to another and back, oblivious to the series of compression waves it created as drivers slowed to avoid it in each lane. The Suburban's brake lights flared angrily when it was caught in another driver's wave. We reached the 184 connector and the race was on. I chose life in the slow lane as a tan Chevy attempted a new land speed record to Meridian.

I looked at the clock on my dash: it was 7:23 pm on Election Day. I had voted that morning but the other drivers clearly had not: they must be rushing to the polls before they close. They must take their civic duty seriously and enjoy casting their ballots as much as I do.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

In Print!

Me. In print. Or in electrons, anyway.

No, I can't claim to be a professional writer, as I wasn't paid for the piece. But I didn't have to pay them to publish it, either.

Of Beavers, Rivers and the Moon is in the Twenty-second Flash in the Pan.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Five People at the Library

Short legs negotiate with uneven slabs of sidewalk. His boots drum a slow, slurred beat. Listing from side to side, his brown face focuses straight ahead. Denim jeans and jacket remember hard work. A blue billed cap shades sunglasses and a mouth missing many teeth.

An orange plastic water bottle hangs on the thumb of one hand. The other hand cradles a cell phone to one ear. A chapbook waits in the crook of her arm and a one-strap backpack hangs down her back. Burnt red trousers echo the minor color in a short print jacket that includes the orange of the water bottle.

Soccer fit, tanned legs with muscular calves end in the latest tennis shoes with low cut socks. Navy soccer shorts contrast with a girly pink fitted fleece vest, zipped in the 63 degree sunshine. Sunglasses with a brown gradient tint talk into a cell phone as she plans a meeting.

Leaning on a burgundy metal cane he smokes his last cigarette before going into the library. A Kansas City Chiefs logo fills the back of a red windbreaker over stiff shoulders. His three-point walk toward the door dislodges jeans that drift down across a square bottom to touch blue Chuck Taylor low tops.

A beach-ball belly resting atop low slung black trousers arrives first and announces an expectant mother. The expectant father talks warmly into a cell phone at her side; he is "antsy." She listens to the conversation and flips a cloth lanyard of keys back and forth beneath an exhibit of expensively curled and bleached hair.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Stranger in the Land of Beauty

These things happened during an early visit to the Land of Beauty, some time in the mid 80s. I have learned more of the language and have had many fine interpreters over the years. I am now more at home when I visit and my hair looks better.

I was late. Thank goodness there was a bike rack next to the door. I parked my bike, slammed my bike lock shut, tore off my helmet, grabbed my water bottle and panniers, and burst inside.

The air conditioning turned sweat drops to ice crystals on the back of my shirt. I wiped sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand and pushed my hair out of my eyes. A woman in a pink synthetic blouse and frozen hair sat behind a tall counter, apparently in charge.

I lumbered to the desk and said, "I-have-an-appointment-with-Sherry-at-two-sorry-I'm-late."

I gasped to catch my breath. "My name's Cindy."

The woman looked at my coolly, then called Sherry on the overhead page system. I slapped down on the plastic couch in front of the desk and gulped water from my water bottle. My breathing was slowing to something like what it would be after finding a porcupine in my bathroom.

A young woman with a figure trying to escape from an outfit that resembled medical scrubs, but in a severe material derived from petroleum, appeared and asked if I was Cindy. Her hair was frozen into a corollary of the shape on the woman behind the desk.

I identified myself and apologized for being late: I'd picked up the phone as I was leaving my office. I detached my sweaty thighs from the couch, stuffed my water bottle into my panniers, and followed the struggle inside the scrubs, which showered me with third or fourth hand cigarette smoke as we walked.

I dropped my panniers next to the chair Sherry showed me to. It resembled a dentist's chair but was less comfortable.

My thighs attached themselves to the chair while the ice on the back of my shirt melted between me and the chair.

Sherry asked, "So what are we looking for today."

"Well, I dunno," I said. I'm thinking something shorter, and maybe poofier on the sides? Um, and see how it kinda sticks up here? Well, you know how Leslie Stahl does hers; it all sort of comes out from a point here? I'd like it to do that, maybe, so I'd have less of a part. Cuz I think I have a long face, kind of a horse face. If I didn't have a part then…it'd be different. Ya know what I mean?"

Sherry looked as though I'd asked her to derive the quadratic equation. Or shave it into my scalp.

"So are you thinking more of a bob? Or do you want it longer than that?"

I didn't know who Bob was, but I knew that when my boyfriend found out how much I was going to spend today he'd been shocked; he only spends $15. I knew I didn't want to look like him, as he was losing his hair, and I was afraid Bob might be also, so I said I wanted it longer than that.

She asked me to take my glasses off, so they wouldn't get in the way. My reflection in the mirror in front of us when fuzzy.

Sherry picked up a pair of naggle-toothed scissors with in one hand and a plastic comb in the other and went to work in silence. I didn't interrupt her.

After a few minutes of combing and snipping, Sherry asked, "So how's your day been?"

"Oh, same stuff. I was working in the lab for a while this morning and then I started packing for the field."

I wasn't sure if she wanted to know about the insects we'd be collecting later that week or not. I decided not, so asked her about her day.

"Oh, fine," she said, "I haven't been too busy today. Getting ready for a party this weekend at our place."

"Sounds like fun," I said.

Her identical twin, with her hair frozen into a second corollary of the first shape, brought a young man to sit in the dentist's chair next to us. Sherry's twin and the man seemed to know each other.

She used the same opening line, "So what are we looking for today."

He said, "I'd like about ¾ of an inch off top and just ½ inch of the sides this time. In back, keep it ½ inch above my collar, and could you touch up around my neckline?"

Sherry's twin went to work. She could work and talk at the same time. The young man was updating her on a friend of theirs; something about him and his PO.

PO? I wondered. I only used PO as an adjective; they were using is as a noun. Maybe they meant his ex-girlfriend, because she Ps him O. But wait, he was seeing his PO every couple of weeks. Why would he go on seeing her that often? Maybe they have a kid together, I thought.

The man and Sherry's twin kept me entertained for the rest of my appointment. I think they entertained Sherry, too. After two or three more dead end conversations, she finished with her implements and turned her blow drier on me. It drowned out the story next door and relieved me from fumbling for the dropped conversation.

"There! How does it look?" Sherry asked.

I put my glasses on, braced myself, and looked in the mirror. It was shorter than it had been when I arrived and I still had more hair than my boyfriend. But it was unlikely that anyone would confuse me with Leslie Stahl: rather than forming a cohesive, professional shape, my hair ran down the sides of my face then tried to escape by jumping off a skateboard ramp at my jaw line. I recognized Marlo Thomas in "That Girl," as I was old enough to have seen the show in the mid 60s.

I struggled to display enthusiasm for my new look and to thank Sherry, but was disappointed in my performance.

I didn't put my bike helmet back on until after I had paid the woman with the frozen hair at the tall counter.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Tough Evening Commute

It's tough to keep your eyes on the road while working at Flat Top Ranch in the Pioneer Mountains of Idaho. This historic ranch stars in Bitterbrush Country: Living on the Edge of the Land.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Bicycles: The End of an Era

I felt as though I had sold a child. Amy handed me a check and drove off with Eugene strapped to the back of her car.

Eugene is a red 1994 Trek 370 Sport bicycle. He was the last in the fifty year-long chain of my two-wheeled companions. Sadly, Eugene spent most of his 15 years with me standing abandoned with the stacks of empty moving boxes and pair of mismatched suitcases that I stashed in storage closets in two states.

I bought my first car shortly after I got Eugene and I no longer had to strap groceries, books, or furniture on the back of my two-wheeled buddy. I had a more demanding job by the time Eugene joined me and I needed more time to think. Walking the three-mile round trip to work provided two quiet interludes in the day. This allowed me to be a spectator to the parade of aging co-workers who limped the halls after bicycling accidents.

For many years Bob Padgett, at Catalina Bike Shop in Tucson, supplied me with bicycles and taught me how to keep them rolling. An article in a local newspaper described Bob's kind and helpful manner and suggested that he might laugh himself silly at his customers' blunders by the end of each day. I'm sure I contributed to Bob's after-hours hilarity.

Bob was a friend to me and to my bicycles. He knew which cones my bicycle friends needed and what size bearings fit in each of their rotating joints. He tried to talk me out of buying a cable cutter, "Oh, just bring your bike in and we'll cut the cables for you when you need it." I bought one anyway because I was a bicycle mechanic. I also needed my own chain tool, spoke wrench, cone wrenches, third hand, bottom bracket wrench, crank puller, freewheel tools, and tire irons.

I was a capable mechanic, a strong cyclist and a confident traveler. I pedaled Eugene from Tucson to the (then) tiny town of Maricopa, 88 miles past saguaros, creosote flats, and irrigated cotton fields, to save the cost of a bus ticket. My bicycles were marvels of simple engineering. I may not have been up to supplying an army with my bicycle, but I kept myself well-supplied until I was nearly 40.

Last spring, my friend Amy saw Eugene standing on my balcony, waiting accusingly for me to rebuild him and put him up for adoption. He he had found his new home.

I visited several bike shops in Boise over the year it took me to finish the one-day job of getting Eugene ready to go live with Amy. But I couldn't find anyone like Bob Padgett in Tucson. No one knew me and no one knew my bicycle. I was looking for parts for a boring old bicycle and I was the age of everyone's mother, so I was also old and boring.

I worked on Eugene long enough that I moved to a new apartment and landed near Bob's Bicycle Shop on Fairview before I was done. I could walk over carrying the 15-year old part that needed to be replaced or pushing the bicycle I couldn't get the 15-year old part off of.

One young man, a mechanical engineering student, pretended to be interested in my bicycle stories. He ignored the fact that I was his mother's age (if she had had children quite late in life) and chatted with me about repairing bikes. I felt like a 20-something bicycle mechanic again and wondered why I hadn't worked on bikes for a living. It would have been an unusual career choice for woman then (or now), but becoming a scientist wasn't a common path either.

I got Eugene fixed up and ready for his life with Amy with several minutes to spare. Over the past year, working on a bicycle for the first time in 12 years, I learned that:

1. Few people fix bicycles from 1994 anymore.
2. Digital cameras let you photograph your bike before you take it apart, increasing the chances you'll put it back together the same way.
3. You can wear disposable rubber gloves while working on your bicycle, eliminating (cool-looking) grimy hands.
4. There are on line videos on how to rebuild (newer but still similar) bicycles.
5. Google can find accessories that Catalina Bike Shop stopped carrying in the 1990s and that you assumed were no longer available.

I was reminded of other things:

1. I cuss a lot while I work on bicycles.
2. Fixing bicycles is more of a duty than a hobby.
3. You feel GREAT when you're done.

I made sure Amy took all my bicycle tools with her when she left, plus the book (1971 edition), so that I'll never be tempted to work on bicycles again.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Taco Truck Lunch

Three tacos pastor at Taco Veloz taco truck: $3.00.
Table conversation when you, the only woman, pull up a chair at the picnic table: None.
Reliving a previous life working in Mexico: Priceless.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Butterflies on a Road

The snow melted enough that the roads were open in the Modoc National Forest above Lava Beds National Monument at the end of June this year. I left the already-baking campground at Lava Beds in late morning and climbed into the cool forest.

On a side road, clouds of butterflies collected minerals from damp spots in the soil. As a plant person, I only identified them to family: Nymphalidae. I was caught in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel as the butterflies surrounded me. They fluttered and landed on me when I got out of the car to photograph them.

They joined me when I stopped to take a bucket bath in the forest (there are no showers at Lava Beds). They pretended there were minerals to collect around the mirrors of my car.

They flew into the car to land on the dash and on me, to bless me with butterfly wing dust.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Mt. Rainier Visitor's Center

I once saw a sign in the Zion National Park Visitor Center: 

1. Outside to the right
2. 93 degrees
3. 8:00 pm

I try not to ask many questions in National Park visitor centers. I never ask where the restroom is, how warm it's expected to get, or when the visitor center closes. I find the restroom before I go in, then I ease through the door, sidle along a wall and search the bulletin boards and displays for the information I need. I am an experienced and resourceful holder of a National Parks Pass.

I was spotted entering the Mt. Rainier Visitor Center, after using the restroom outside. The man behind the counter boomed, "Do you have any questions?" while most of me was still outside in the light mist.

The man focused on me and blocked my view of the white board behind him, which appeared to hold the weather report. He seemed to have been waiting for me. I tried a few head bobs to get a clear view of the board, but he had dealt with craftier visitors than I. And he was not a small man.

I mumbled that I wanted to know how cool it might get that night and how likely I was to get rained on in the campground. I seemed to be the first person to ask about the weather that day; he turned to read the board with me.

After we had established "mid 40s" and "probably" the man turned back to me and asked what else I wanted to know. He had been waiting all week to answer my questions.

I warmed up to him and asked a few more things: what was his favorite day hike (still snowed in, but there were several at lower elevations that I might enjoy), how much had I dropped in elevation since coming over White Pass (about 2500 feet), and was there a cure for my fear of trees (try taking my glasses off). His eyes crinkled beneath grey hair. I was his favorite visitor that week.

We chatted on, swapping stories about other parks, our favorite hikes, and people who rely solely on their GPS unit, rather than carrying a backup compass and noticing where they are on the landscape (other people; not us). We were old friends; I was probably his favorite visitor all year. Admittedly, the visitor's center had only been open for a few weeks. 

By this time more visitors had arrived. None were sidling along the walls searching the bulletin and white boards, so I left the man to talk with other, less interesting, park visitors.

I moved on to the 3-D scale model of the park, on my way to the displays in the museum.

The man welcomed a young couple as they entered. He detected an accent and asked where they were from. When they responded, "Holland," he asked which part. He placed their home town in the correct region, which he pronounced convincingly in Dutch. Then he described the Dutch origin of one of his children’s names. 

The couple were his favorite Dutch visitors that week. 

Monday, June 14, 2010

Salo Road

I saw this in Eastern Washington, north of Sprague, where the vegetation does not obscure the road signs.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Brown Snow

Susan J. Tweit described drifts of brown snow in South Park, Colorado earlier this spring. An April dust storm had carried soil from dry lowlands to the Rocky Mountains. Susan described how the dusting of soil increases the heat absorbed by the snow, melting it faster and hastening high spring river flows. This shortens the irrigation season from western rivers and reduces the water available for other uses later in the summer.

As a lowlander, I have seen where the mountain dusting of soil starts its journey.

In 2005 it seemed that the Clover fire had it in for me. After starting as a lightning strike southeast of Bruneau, Idaho on July 15 the fire, fueled by grass and sagebrush, widened as it moved north. After a half mile it found one of my research sites.

Before the fire the site had been covered with Sandberg bluegrass that brushed my knees and a sprinkling of pink and white phlox. Scattered "old growth" sagebrush with orange lichen festooning the stems were surrounded by duvets of sensuous moss.

The Clover Fire continued north for several more hours then reversed direction and burned south, swung due east for a bit, then meandered southeast for several more days, forming a lumpy burn scar visible from the air when you fly into Boise from the east. Six days after burning across the Sandburg bluegrass site the fire burned a research site where elegant Thurber needlegrass had flourished after an earlier small fire.

After burning 192,000 acres in six days the Clover Fire sputtered and died in the irrigated field just over the fence from the Thurber needlegrass ashes.

I visited the Clover Fire four months later, during clear golden fall days with nights chilly enough to send me to a motel in the nearby town of Bliss. The swells of the Sagebrush Sea had been replaced by bare soil broken by twisted sagebrush skeletons reaching skyward where the fire had cooled enough to spare them. Where the fire crossed roads it had eased enough to leave dried wisps of the previous spring's cheatgrass plants. Rare unburned islands, where the fire had been deflected around an area by rock or bare soil, contrasted with the emptiness.

Without its protective covering of Sandburg bluegrass, Thurber needlegrass, phlox, sagebrush, and moss, the soil had become restless. Roads had become rivers of fine soil dropped when the wind slowed in the lee of the berm the road grader left behind.

The soil in the roads had been scoured from other areas. In some places the roots of perennial grasses had been undermined, their leaves long ago sandblasted away by blowing soil. In other areas only spider webs of fine roots remained, incapable of catching even soil.

Although fire and soil erosion are natural processes, many areas of the West are experiencing more and larger fires. These are often followed by alarming rates of soil loss. We have changed the West.

There are more of us, driving more cars that catch fire along interstates, tossing more cigarettes mindlessly from car windows, and riding more ATVs. Earlier residents of the West brought exotic cheatgrass, which now blankets large areas with fine fuels that allow fire to spread more easily than do our larger and more widely spaced native perennial grasses.

Our recent warmer summers, whether fueled by CO2 released from consuming fossil fuels or part of a long term cycle, make wildfires more difficult to control. Predicted greater variability in precipitation may weaken our perennial grasses, which form the Thin Green Line that protects the land from both erosion and invasion by cheatgass.

Although we can measure the extent and frequency of fires and the rates of soil loss and deposition after fire, we do not know how many acres can burn and how much soil can blow to the other states before we careen into a downward spiral of unraveling natural systems. Rather than focusing on only our short term goals of production from our Western lands, we must remember to also focus on maintaining the long term function of our lands. We must remember to protect our perennial grasses so that they can protect the land for us.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Cats is Coming!

The Cats of Mirikitani, that is. The film will be shown at the Minidoka Civil Liberties Symposium June 24 and 25, 2010 in Twin Falls, Idaho. Its director and producer, Linda Hattendorf, will attend to participate in a panel discussion of art in and about Japanese-American Internment Camps.

Linda met the artist Jimmy Mirikitani while he living on the streets of New York City, where he drew cats, Hiroshima in flames, and scenes from the Tule Lake Internment Camp. When she found him coughing in the dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center, Linda brought Jimmy into her small apartment. She helped him apply for Social Security benefits, find an apartment, reconnect with the sister he had not seen since they were sent to different internment camps, and continue to create his art. Jimmy Mirikitani's artwork has since been exhibited at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle and other locations around the country.

I saw The Cats of Mirikitani last fall and could not stop thinking about it. As a child I heard my mother's story of her friend teaching at the Tule Lake Camp. As an adult I visited the sites of camps in Arizona and Idaho. As a caring person I am embarrassed by the institutionalized racism that allowed American citizens to be interned.

I contacted Linda Hattendorf and told her I was working to bring her film and Jimmy's artwork to Idaho.

Boise poet, photographer, and publisher, Betty K. Rodgers, saw my first blog post about the Cats of Mirikitani and put me in touch with Dr. Robert Sims, Professor of History, Emeritus at Boise State University. When I met Bob for coffee on a morning just before Christmas, he had already visited his young granddaughters, read them a morning story, and walked one to her school bus. Bob had watched The Cats of Mirikitani the weekend before and joined me in wanting to bring The Cats to Idaho.

Bob Sims has researched and written about Japanese Americans in Idaho and, in retirement, is working on a book about the Minidoka Camp north of Twin Falls. This is where Jimmy Mirikitani's sister was sent over sixty years ago. The camp is now a National Historic Site, where the Friends of Minidoka and the National Park Service preserve the history of the internment experience. Former internees and their families return to Minidoka each year on a pilgrimage to remember their three-year incarceration during World War II.

The Minidoka Civil Liberties Symposium is held each year in conjunction with the pilgrimage. Bob has been part of the symposiums from the start and is often a featured speaker. Past symposiums have examined the role of journalism in times of crisis and presidential powers in wartime. Bob was tickled to tell me that this year's event would examine connections between art and civil liberties and focus on art in and about the interment camps.

Encouraged by my visit with Bob, I contacted Wendy Janssen, Superintendent of Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and the Minidoka National Historic Site. Before coming to Idaho, Wendy worked to preserve African American history at several national parks. She agreed that the film would be a valuable addition to the symposium and promised funding to bring it and Linda Hattendorf to Idaho. Unfortunately, arranging an art show is more complex; Idaho must wait to see Jimmy Mirikitani's artwork.

Earlier this spring, I was delighted to invite Linda and The Cats of Mirikitani to the Minidoka Civil Liberties Symposium. Linda will be able to squeeze a trip to Idaho into a summer filled with teaching and film work. She reports that Jimmy Mirikitani, now 91, is doing well despite a recent trip to the emergency room after a fall.

My To Do list:
Bring The Cats of Mirikitani to Boise? Check.
Bring Jimmy Mirikitani's artwork to Boise? Still on my list.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Standing in Line to Vote

Voting an absentee ballot to save time is for sissies. I voted the old fashioned way today: I went to the polls and stood in line. Admittedly there wasn't much of a line.

Secret ballots are one of my favorite things about the U.S. There were secret ballots in Senegal, but voters lined up in different places to vote for different candidates. Their preferences were hardly secret.

The year my Peace Corps village voted, two Senegalese soldiers arrived to guard the ballot box. They were delighted to learn that an American woman lived in their assigned village -- you know how those American women are! They hurried to my hut to see if I really lived alone and to introduce themselves. Their suggestion of visiting me again after dark won them a chilly reception. They left the next day with the ballot boxes but without visiting me again.

People waiting in lines are another of my favorite things about the U.S. When I wanted kola nuts in Senegal I would go to the guro stand and wait patiently for my turn. Men wearing grand bubus and Islamic caps jostled me as they stepped in front of me. Children squeezed under my elbow as they wormed their way forward to watch the kola nut seller fold back the moist leaves that lined the woven baskets of red and white nuts. When I found myself squeezed back out into the street, I would give my money to a friend who elbowed their way into the stall and emerged with kola nuts.

No one jostled me or squeezed in front of me when I voted in the Idaho primary election today. The woman sitting at the table with the ballot box pronounced my name correctly when she told the world that I had voted. She tucked her white sneakered feet under her chair and looked at me over her reading glasses. She did not suggest visiting me tonight.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I Visit the Great Basin Desert

Friends grimaced when I told them I was going to Winnemucca. They looked concerned when I told them I was going to enjoy it. My early spring visit this year was the latest in a series of winning Winnemucca road trips.

I left spring behind on the tail end of the Snake River Plain as I climbed through brown winter grass in the mountains above Homedale. In Jordan Valley, Oregon, I found cattle still snug in their green winter pastures. The low hills that lined the rest of the road to Winnemucca were wearing the green velvet of soft new plants. Above the hills bunt cake ridges were frosted with vanilla snow, which faded to a powdered sugar dusting on the mid peaks where the sun had warmed the south and west aspects.

Green vistas, occasionally dotted with puffs of pronghorn antelope, lasted for days as I visited several valleys around Winnemucca. I pondered why there has been so much less cheatgrass than before in some of them over the past several years. Other scientists, land managers and I are not short of theories, ranging from army cutworm to bacteria, fungus and drought, but we do not have a definitive answer yet. Science provides job security.

Last year's Nevada road trip was later in the season, when the valley bottoms were furnaces of shimmering earth covered with dried plants. After a day baking on the greasewood flats and sagebrush plains I reached state highway 305 where I turned north toward Battle Mountain.

I checked my DeLorme atlas of Nevada and saw that I would pass the "Great Basin Desert," according to the labeled "Unique Natural Feature" on the map. Interesting, as I had been in the Great Basin since I crossed the divide between the Snake River Plain and Jordan Valley. The Snake River flows into the Columbia near Washington's Tricities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland and so is part of the Columbia Plateau. Rivers in the Great Basin flow into the Great Salt Lake or lose themselves in innumerable playas and salt flats in valley bottoms throughout the 200,000 square miles of the Great Basin; there is no outlet to the ocean.

I hurried on to visit the Great Basin Desert along highway 305.

I estimated the coordinates of the Unique Natural Feature in the atlas and entered them into my GPS unit. As the indicator on the navigation screen shifted from pointing ahead of me to pointing toward the west I got out of the car and followed the indicator on foot until I reached the Great Basin Desert.

The vertical orange fiberglass sign marked a survey benchmark inside the fence that separated grazing land from the highway right of way. I squeezed between the strands of barbed wire and found the benchmark, or triangulation station, placed by "Harry" from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1958.

No, there had not been one last attempt to find an outlet to the sea from the Nevada desert. The Coast and Geodetic Survey began life as the Survey of the Coast in 1807. Established by Thomas Jefferson, it was the first U.S. civilian scientific agency, responsible for producing accurate nautical charts. This required knowing exactly where the U.S. was. Surveyors first precisely located points atop hills on Long Island by navigating from the stars. They expanded out by triangulating from these known points to new triangulation stations, such as the one I found in Nevada.

As the country expanded west the Survey of the Coast followed it on to dry land and continued to weave their network of triangles. Renamed the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1878, its work allowed the country to be mapped into townships, ranges and sections for homesteading. In 1970 the agency became the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) within the National Ocean Service (NOS) as part of the new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The original surveyors, shooting the stars in the early 19th century, could not have known that a Global Positioning System (GPS) would exist 200 years later. But their system of triangles, interlinked back to Long Island, allowed me find to the Great Basin Desert using my handheld GPS unit. I took a self portrait to celebrate.

I contacted Dave Doyle, the NGS Chief Geodetic Surveyor, who was willing to hazard a guess that there may be 30,000 triangulation stations in the Great Basin. (You can see Dave marking the population center of the U.S. after the 2000 census or ask him a question here.)

I'm tickled that my tax dollars were used to answer one of my burning questions, but Dave's answer just brings me to another question:

Why did the DeLorme company pick the triangulation station along Nevada state highway 305 south of Battle Mountain as the location of the Great Basin Desert?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Of Beavers, Rivers and the Moon

I saw a beaver in the wild for the first time as I crossed the Capitol Street bridge at dusk this evening. The beaver was cruising upstream near the north bank of the Boise River. I had stopped to listen to the rapids and watch the nearly-full moon rise behind a light mist. I lingered to dream of another river trip.

For several years River Buddy Jim and I paddled a river in the West each summer. The desert sun distilled away the unimportant parts of our lives and left the sweet gooey essence of life on the river. We got up when the birds chirped, paddled hard all day, scared ourselves witless in the rapids, ate gargantuan meals, then relaxed in the evening and told lies while drinking malt-based beverages. We spread our sleeping bags on the sand at night then did it all over again the following day.

We timed our trips to start shortly after a full moon: even on the first night Jim could see the stars after the sun set but before the moon rose above the walls of whatever canyon we were running. Each night his star gazing window lengthened as the moon rose later. The moon always filled the canyon with light several hours after that when I climbed out of my bag to walk to the edge of the river to recycle beer, listen to the rapids, and watch the moon.

But in all those visits to the river at night I never saw a beaver.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Creeping Socialism

Over a dozen state attorneys general have joined Idaho's and filed suit against the US federal government over health care reform. Texas governor Rick Perry said, "Unfortunately, the health care vote had more to do with expanding socialism on American soil than it does fixing our health care finance and delivery systems."

We have jumped back nearly 50 years to the debate over Medicare. In 1961, Ronald Reagan spoke out against the creeping Socialism in the United States and the imminent loss of "our traditional free enterprise system." He calculated that the federal government already controlled "one fifth of the total industrial capacity of the US" and predicted health care rationing for senior citizens if Medicare passed.

In a recording distributed by the American Medical Association, Reagan urged Americans to write their Congressmen [sic] and urge them to defeat the bill that became Medicare, warning that:

"If you don't, this program, I promise you, will pass, just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow. And behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country, until, one day...we will awake to find that we have Socialism. And if you don't do this and I don't do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children's children, what it once was like in American when men were free."

This was forgotten during the past year's health care debate, when the Republican Party cast themselves as the protectors of the same program they had opposed earlier. Ruling out the predicted Armageddon, my money is on the Republicans to jump on board when they realize how well health care reform works. In another 50 years I predict they will be protecting the recent changes from creeping Socialism.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Spring, Sprang, Sprung!

One of my favorite spring flowers, sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus), is blooming in the Boise foothills. The golden blooms are often seen shining through a late spring snowfall. Today there was just warm, sunny weather.

I returned to the parking lot to find a friend getting out of his truck. He had been driving by and saw my car. He turned in, although he was sure he wouldn't actually find me...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Women Making History: Laytreda Schultz

I wrote about two women for the Women Making History supplement in the Idaho Statesman on March 4th, 2010. Laytreda was one.
The articles are not available at, so I've posted them here.
Laytreda Schultz goes to work surrounded by what she fears most. She is a marine law enforcement officer who cannot swim. She is also a visionary who sweats the small stuff and a sheriff’s sergeant with enough financial smarts for street cred at a CPA convention.

“Marine work got me out of the office,” she says, “and it was also a way to make extra money.” But her biggest motivation was overcoming her fear of water. “A lot of kids learn to swim when they’re young, but I didn’t. I grew up afraid of water. Although I’ve conquered that fear, I still have a healthy respect for it.”

Laytreda started with the Elmore County Sheriff’s Department in Mountain Home, Idaho as a dispatch operator when she was a teenager. After 14 years, she had worked her way up to supervisor. When she found that she could go no farther to advance her career, she tried a year working in Boise. But Laytreda soon returned to the sheriff’s department, this time working in both the warrants and the accounting offices. She tracked down outstanding warrants throughout Idaho and across the country. And as an accountant, she honed her skills at tracking down and capturing the funding needed to help keep the sheriff’s department in operation.

When a part-time position on marine patrol opened up in 1996, Laytreda seized the chance to get out on the water and face her fears. Although she doesn’t see herself as a daredevil, she admits that she enjoyed the challenge of running white water. She says, “The first time I took a boat through some rapids the adrenaline rush afterwards was amazing!” And it wasn’t long before she used her financial skills to locate funding for greater resources and better maintenance of the marine facilities.

Laytreda left the paperwork of the warrants office for the towns of Elmore County after she helped obtain funding for a community policing deputy. In this position, she patrolled in town during the week and still spent weekends on the water. During her first year as a new deputy, Laytreda attended the Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Academy, was certified, and became a sworn law enforcement officer. This gave her the authority to arrest suspects.

Five years later, Laytreda was promoted from deputy to sergeant. “It’s hard to explain what I do,” she says. “My job didn’t exist when I started and it’s different every day.” She supervises deputies in Pine and Featherville, who are responsible for backcountry law enforcement in the mountains of Elmore County. When the primary marine deputy left, she began supervising the marine program as well. Over the years her job has expanded to include Recreation and Search and Rescue.

Laytreda is also responsible for special events like the Three Island Crossing reenactment. This commemorates the Oregon Trail pioneers who crossed the Snake River near Glenns Ferry. The journey was a perilous one for the pioneers, but fortunately for modern-day river crossers, Laytreda was standing by to help ensure everyone’s safety. She especially remembers one year—seeing a close friend swept off his horse in the chaos of an overturned wagon and the struggle to unhitch the horses. Although her friend was not injured, her helplessness, as her jet ski stalled in the moss-chocked water, haunts her. “It’s still hard to think about. I can still see him in the water and remember tying to get to him but not being able to.” Laytreda watched over her last crossing in August, 2009, when the event officially ended after 24 years.

Laytreda is also involved in safer events like Shop with a Cop. This program helps children from disadvantaged families buy Christmas gifts for their siblings and parents. Each December, over one hundred law enforcement officers convoy through Mountain Home, lights flashing, for a shopping spree with young deputies-for-the-day.

Even with a heavy schedule in law enforcement, Laytreda still helps manage the department’s finances—nearly a full-time job by itself. “If I had it to do over again, I would be an accountant,” she says. “You have to live on a budget at home. It’s the same thing here at the sheriff’s department. Knowing your limitations and working within them is the key to a successful program.”

Although she understands the limitations of the sheriff’s budget, Laytreda shows limitless creativity in locating sources of funding. She knows where to look for money and how to secure it through warm personal relationships and persistence. She says, “When I walk in to the county commissioner’s meetings they sigh and ask me what I want.”

Once the sheriff’s department has purchased new equipment, Laytreda shows the same persistence and attention to detail when maintaining it. Her fleet includes boats and jet skis for marine work, and snowmobiles and four wheelers for search and rescue work. She is currently planning a new county building that will provide safe equipment storage, plus offices and classrooms. Even in these difficult times, she has located enough source of funding to reach her goal.

Laytreda’s coworker, Deputy Sheriff Nancy Hawley, says, “Laytreda stays on top of the little stuff, so that the big stuff all works.” Laytreda sees herself simply as a problem solver. “I solve the community’s problems through my law enforcement work, and I solve funding problems at the sheriff’s office.”

Women Making History: Stacy Falkner

I wrote about two women for the Women Making History supplement in the Idaho Statesman on March 4th, 2010. Stacy was one.
The articles are not available at, so I've posted them here.

Stacy Falkner starts each day with gratitude. She is grateful for the love and encouragement of her amazing husband, for her “two hysterical kids, close-knit family and wildly wonderful friends.” But rather than “paying back” her many blessings, Stacy feels an obligation to “pay it forward”.

In 2006, Stacy had a fulfilling life as a wife and mother. But she was nagged by the feeling that she could be doing more for others. “I wanted to do more to make the world a better place for everyone,” she says, “and I saw political science as a path to doing that.” Stacy enrolled at Boise State University to complete the bachelor’s degree that she had started several years earlier at the University of Idaho.

One of her professors challenged the class to read a book that was not part of the assigned readings. Stacy chose “The Audacity of Hope” by Barack Obama. Finishing the book was a defining moment for a woman raised in a well-informed family of staunch Republicans. Obama’s message of hope and change resonated with Stacy and echoed her own optimism and desire for a better world.

Even more significant was Obama’s approach to decision making. “He had me at common sense,” says Stacy. His description of past politics, when Congressional members saw each other as worthy adversaries who challenged one another to clear thinking and creative solutions, struck a chord with Stacy. This helped focus her own approach to creating the world that she imagined. “The pursuit of better policy doesn’t have to be contentious,” she says, “it can be collaborative.”

When Obama announced his intention to run for president, Stacy knew she had to act. Designing an internship through Boise State allowed her to combine working for change with completing her degree. The national Obama campaign challenged Stacy to establish chapters of Students for Barack Obama at every college and university in Idaho. This meant locating students who wanted to work for a Democratic underdog in their historically conservative state. Stacy’s first grassroots organizing experience was a success. By the end of her internship, chapters existed at each of the nine schools in Idaho and students were campaigning for Obama.

Embarking on a second Boise State internship gave Stacy a closer look at how policy is created at the state level. She served as an aide to Idaho State Senator (then Representative) Nicole LeFavour. This allowed her to see the valuable role that personal relationships, often crossing party lines, can play in lawmaking. She says, “Individuals can disagree productively when they respect each other and recognize that each person’s beliefs are as valid and as deeply held as their own. Good debate fosters growth.”

After graduation in May, 2008, Stacy was hired as the Idaho Field Director of Obama for America. She “found islands of bold and eager Democrats in a sea of red” as she shared Obama’s vision for America. She credits experience on the Obama campaign with honing her listening and leadership skills. “The most important skill for grassroots organizing,” Stacy says, “is the ability to recognize what is most important to people. This means listening closely to find the one thing that each person feels passionate about and then turning that energy into action.”

In January 2009, Stacy traveled to Washington D.C. for Obama’s inauguration. The following day, when President and Mrs. Obama visited the Staff Ball, the Idaho for Obama team was thrilled to hear their state singled out. The new President stated, “You didn’t listen to the naysayers. You said, ‘I’m Idaho for Obama. Yes we can!’ ” The crowd erupted into chants of, “Way to go, Idaho!” that provided a celebratory end to months of campaigning.

Unfortunately, Election Day meant unemployment for Stacy. But her organizing skills and experience with the legislature paved the way for her current position. She now serves in the Public Affairs department of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest (formerly Planned Parenthood of Idaho). Her job focuses on health policy and lobbying during legislative session and shifts to outreach, education, and volunteer recruitment during the rest of the year.

When women have access to quality, affordable health care, they are more likely to avoid a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or unplanned pregnancy. The key is prevention through comprehensive health education. Stacy point out, “We teach our children about the danger of not wearing a seatbelt even though we don’t anticipate a car accident, but we avoid telling them the risks of unprotected sex because we’re uncomfortable talking about it.”

Stacy is determined that her children will grow up in a more compassionate world. She sees her rewarding family life as the fulcrum on which the rest of her life balances. The happiness she finds with her family and friends gives her the energy to champion progressive causes and dedicate hours to volunteering for organizations close to her heart.

President Obama said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Josie Evans-Graham, Education Coordinator at Planned Parenthood, adds, “This epitomizes Stacy’s attitude and inspiration. She has--and will--play a role in the positive change we seek in our state.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Audio Roommates

I have three sets of audio roommates. One set and I share a living room/kitchen wall. They also share with me their joy at a touchdown in a televised football game, their disappointment at a loss in basketball, and the excitement and squealing tires of video games.

Another set of audio roommates shares a bedroom wall with me. By 2 a.m., alcohol has propelled the woman's voice into my bedroom. Alcohol increases her linguistic creativity; the F word morphs from a verb into an adjective, a noun, an adverb, then back to a verb.

For many weeks the focus of her linguistic skills was "David." The verbal onslaught would still briefly during vigorous sex, then immediately resume. Oxytocin ("the love hormone"), which is produced during sex and triggers feelings of romantic love and contentment, was powerless against her anger. When David was present, the woman cried in frustration and disappointment. When he left, she wailed in loneliness. The cycle repeated several times.

I moved my pillows to the end of the bed farthest from the wall and directly under the window. It attenuates the noise and lets me watch the moon slide toward the western horizon while I wait to fall asleep again.

One night, a previous set of bedroom audio roommates shared "Don't hit me!" and the sounds of someone being beaten. The police responded to my call with a knock on their door loud enough for me to hear. The beater did not go to jail and the beaten did not go to the hospital, but there was no audio feed in my bedroom for two weeks. The woman moved back to her mother's a short time later.

My third set of audio roommates fills my life with every event in the apartment below me. For three years the apartment has been a revolving door of nearly interchangeable young couples who smoke and test the boundaries set by the apartment managers. The current occupants own a TV that goes to 11; they like 11.

My current downstairs audio roommates are happy in a new romance and their first apartment. In less than two moths the midnight noise has escalated from shouting and door slamming to the sounds of a lengthy physical battle accompanied by a stream of insults in a male voice. I couldn't tell if he was battling with his girlfriend or with the furniture and walls. I did not call the police, as attacking household objects is not illegal.

The next morning the couple was in the living room, singing a cappella and having sex.

I want to escape the sound track of violence that fills my apartment. But moving would not end the violence; it would only keep me from hearing it.

A friend, whose wife is an Assistant District Attorney in a large U.S. city, summed up my reluctance to call the police as the "ambiguity in our collective social contract that lets abusers get away with abuse, and sometimes murder." His wife handles many cases where women did not get the opportunity to say, "Don't hit me" or whose cries were not heard. These are murder cases.

I asked a police officer when it is appropriate to call. Although involving the police can sometimes put the woman in danger or drive her to side with her abuser, the police are skilled at defusing violence. He told me to call next time.

The officer cautioned me against becoming so emotionally involved in the problem that it interfered with my life. He reminded me that women in abusive relationships often believe that the violence is caused by their shortcomings; that the beatings are "their fault." The women love the men despite the abuse. He described his personal heartbreak at unsuccessfully encouraging women to leave abusive relationships.

The Women's and Children's Alliance (WCA), in Boise, estimates that one in four women is the victim of domestic violence at some time in their lives. A staff member told me that only the women know when it is safe for them to escape. Her agency provides resources to help victims leave an unsafe situation and to help both abusers and victims learn new communication skills.

The WCA provides "sock cards," small enough to conceal in a sock. Available in English and Spanish, the cards help victims recognize when they are in an abusive relationship, develop a safety plan, and escape.

WCA staff members can provide training for apartment managers in Boise. I will contact management companies to arrange trainings, and then I will keep the participants' rental offices supplied with sock cards and other resources.

I live in an apartment because it is ecologically and economically the least expensive option.

Apartments consume fewer resources and less energy than single family homes. Multi-unit dwellings promote infill, which allows more people to walk, bike, and bus to work, shopping, and entertainment. Our economy is still reeling from the recent stampede to buy and sell houses.

I hope that apartment managers in Boise will work to provide safe and pleasant homes for all of their residents. Living in apartments will help us live more lightly on the Snake River Plain. Replacing violence with more effective communication will help make Boise a more peaceful and happy place for everyone.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ice is nice...

...when it's ouside on the trees,

but not when it's inside the house!