Monday, October 24, 2011

Fine Variations on a Winning Theme

Sagebrush is arguably the most successful and dominant plant in the Intermountain West, swathing landscapes in gray-green from subalpine peaks to low desert flats between the Columbia Basin and the Colorado Plateau.

Although well known, sagebrush is often unrecognized when it hides in plain view. It provides a subdued backdrop of small, dusky leaves and tiny, green flowers against which buttercups, larkspur,balsamroot, and lupines parade...

Sagebrush is self-sufficient and does not need insects to pollinate its flowers; it simply releases pollen for the wind to carry. Instead of relying on birds or mammals to disperse its seeds, sagebrush just drops them to the ground or skids them across firm snow like tiny curling stones.

Learn more in my most recent column in Rangelands.

Monday, August 29, 2011

How Healthy are your Roots?

Not the ancestral kind, the kind that anchor plants, protect the soil, and keep invasive plants from invading. And how do you monitor the health of plant roots?

I describe new techniques for monitoring plant roots, vegetation, fuel loads, and ground water in my latest Rangelands column.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Where in the World is Queen Ida(ho)?

I returned from a summer-long road trip to a long to do list and a pile of mail (the mail that could wait--a friend forwarded the important things). My to dos included a visit to the Boise Public Library for an annual update of my contact information.

As I stood in the checkout line at the downtown library I looked to my right for a comforting welcome home nod from Queen Ida. I expected to see Queen Ida where I left her this spring: sitting regally on the throne of Idaho, cradling a potato in one hand with a hoe as her scepter in the other, attended by a mountain bluebird and adorned by a sprig of flowering syringa. I had missed seeing her warm face, turned toward me so that its edge follows the jagged ridgeline of the Bitterroot Mountains on Idaho's eastern border.

But Queen Ida was gone. I stared at a wall as blank as a bowl of cold oatmeal. Only a forlorn picture hanger remained where the framed poster of the Queen had hung and ruled serenely over library patrons.

I asked after Queen Ida while the woman at the desk updated my information. But she hadn't noticed the abdication. The librarian at the information desk reported that others of Ida's devoted subjects had inquired about her. But she couldn't remember the details of the Queen's whereabouts. I left my business card and hoped for an update.

The next day Kevin Booe, the Boise Public Library director, called me with a full report on the absent sovereign. (Apparently matters of missing royalty go directly to the top at the library.) Kevin assured me that Queen Ida's absence is only temporary. She has gone to visit Terri Schorzman at the Boise Department of Arts and History. This department encourages the public, literary, visual, and performance arts and preserves historic and cultural artifacts. Terri is looking into the details of the Queen's copyright to see if it's possible to make a copy of the poster.

Kevin also shared some of Queen Ida's story with me. She was created by Carl Babcock, an art professor who worked at the library after he retired. The poster was commissioned for Idaho's state centennial in 1990. Other paintings by Carl, of scenes from Alice in Wonderland, hang in the children's section of the Library.

If you also miss the twinkle in Queen Ida's eye next time you're in the main library, don't worry. The queen will return soon to reign over library patrons, librarians, and directors.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Researcher Finds New Threat to Rare Plant

Slickspot peppergrass knows what it likes. When it comes to a place to live, this plant is hard to please. The small white spring flower likes southwestern Idaho: it grows nowhere else. The plant, which is not actually a grass, only grows on certain soils in this area. Even on those soils, you’ll have to look carefully to find this peppergrass: it only grows in slickspots: small depressions that hold water longer into the hot, dry summer than the surrounding soil.

You might expect the plant to keep a low profile, hunkered down in the slickspots of the sagebrush desert. You’d be wrong; this unassuming plant has been argued over and published on, counted and studied, dragged into federal court and scrutinized by the state of Idaho.

Foes of livestock grazing point to their favorite target as the cause of the rare plant’s low numbers. Ranchers point to the data, which don’t link cattle activity and plant numbers. Researchers point out that the annual data only give once-a-year snapshots of the plants, which reveal little about what they need to thrive.

In the midst the controversy, Ian Robertson discovered a new threat to slickspot peppergrass: industrious ants. Robertson, an entomologist at Boise State University, studies insect pollinators of the plant, which spreads only by seeds. While looking at pollinators, he noticed something else: ants were carrying off and eating the plants’ seeds.

In addition to recognizing a new threat to slickspot peppergrass, Robertson’s work also solved the mystery behind a well-known pattern. He identified ants as the link between the loss of native vegetation after fires and the decline in the peppergrass.

I wrote about these new findings for the Boise State Division of Research and Economic Development.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Cheatgrass that Wasn't There

My first Land Lines column is in the June issue of Rangelands, a journal of the Society for Range Management.

“It looked like the ground was moving; there must have been millions of them. And they were eating every green shoot. It was dark, but I saw some on a light-colored rock. Then I saw 'em everywhere!”

I shivered in the chilly June evening as I listened to the rancher.

“It was warm in January, warmer than it is right now, and I saw the larvae in February,” he continued. “I collected some and took them in. The guy said they were army cutworms.”

Learn more about the culprit(s) in the Great Cheatgrass Caper on the SRM website.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Datil Well and the Wallow Fire

I added a third campground to my All Time Favorite list: Datil Well National Recreation Area, in western New Mexico, joins Natural Bridges and Lava Beds as the places I'd most like to spend the night.

All three campgrounds are located in arid PJ (pinon-juniper) vegetation and are small enough that large motor homes have difficulty navigating the roads between the trees. I rarely hear generators running in my favorite campgrounds and after the sun gets dark! I'm reminded how extravagant the Milky Way is when it's the only source of light. Natural Bridges National Monument, in southern Utah, is the first International Dark-Sky Park and is believed to be graced by the darkest night time skies in the National Park system.

Natural Bridges is also home to my All Time Favorite Day Hike: Drive to the far end of the loop drive and park at the Owachomo Bridge overlook. Walk back north, across the mesa, to Sipapu Bridge near the beginning of the loop. Follow the trail from the parking area at Sipapu Bridge down into White Canyon and then walk downstream to Owachomo Bridge. It's a relaxing hike in a canyon that shades you from the desert sun with trees and rock.

The campground at Lava Beds National Monument looks north to the wetlands of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the California-Oregon border and the nearby the Tule Lake Japanese Internment camp. To the south of Lava Beds, the Modoc National Forest provides high elevation relief from the desert heat.

The water in Datil Well Campground still comes from the historic well. It was one of 15, spaced every 10 miles, that provided water for livestock on the Magdalena Stock Driveway. Cattle and sheep trailed along the driveway from Springerville, AZ to the railroad at Magdalena, NM during the 1800s. The Recreation Area is on BLM land and nestles against the eastern flank of the Datil Mountains and the Cibola National Forest.

I left Datil Well on June 6th and soon saw the smoke layer from the Wallow Fire burning in eastern Arizona. A few cumulus clouds peeked over the top of the smoke.

When I rolled into Aragon, NM, I realized that the puffy white formations weren't clouds; it was a convection column building above the fire, which was being fanned by unusually hot, dry weather and gusty winds.

By the time I stopped for an afternoon snack in Reserve, NM the convection column dominated the view to the west.

The Wallow Fire is the largest fire ever in Arizona. It started May 29th, southwest of Alpine, AZ and has burned 538,049 acres. It is now reported to be 89% contained. Although the news is encouraging, the fire still has a high potential for growth in difficult terrain.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sleeping Ute

Miles from Boise to Hovenweep: 729
Cost of two nights in the campground: $20
Number of suppurating cedar gnat bites: 10,000 (estimate)
Being the first to look out of your tent each morning to make sure that the Great Warrior God is still sleeping and hasn't risen to help fight the Ute's enemies: priceless

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Something Warm, Dry, and Tingley

If I'd known they were going to stop making them I'd have bought a lifetime supply: that special type of men's Texas Steer work boots from Kmart. No other boots fit me like they did. I loved my last pair into wads of crumpled leather and lopsided soles.

I wore Texas Steers while milking cows, driving tractors, collecting insects in cotton fields, riding a motorcycle in West Africa, backpacking, and trying (unsuccessfully) to learn to rope cattle from the back of a horse. My Texas Steers could handle a pair of spurs as well as a pair of White's Farmer-Ranchers can--at a fraction the cost.

The spurs in the photo belonged to Tim, the cook at the Everett Ranch in Salida, CO 15 years ago. Tim didn't do much riding the week I spent at the Everett's cow camp. He didn't do much walking, either, until that Thursday when he'd had enough of being laid up and sawed the cast off his right foot.

Tim made the first biscuits and gravy I'd ever eaten. They warmed me on the frosty summer mountain mornings when the hummingbirds were too cold to fly and sat on the perch at the feeder between sips. And I'd guess that Tim made 95% of the Velveeta and white bread sandwiches I've ever eaten. The four other guests and I tucked them into our saddle bags before we left for a day of bouncing on our horses and trying to stay out of the cowboys' way while they worked.

The horse I bounced around on that week was named Shavano after the nearby fourteener peak and a historic Ute chief. My Shavano was an equine bon vivant and indefatigable optimist. Every morning he thought that this just might be the day that I forgot to tighten his cinch again after he let his breath out. Any sighting of the horse trailer raised his hopes that he could get in and catch a ride back home to his pasture.

Two decades before I strapped spurs on my Texas Steers, I tucked them into Tingely barn rubbers and milked cows in them. After milking, I peeled the rubbers off and hopped on a tractor with my clean, dry boots.

Now I live in the Sagebrush Sea, where spring means mud. All our rain falls in the winter and the soil doesn't dry out until late May. It was time for another pair of Tingleys: I ordered a pair of Women's large rubbers, as I'm now wearing women's boots from the thrift store.

Sadly, my lovely new rubbers were too small--no amount to pulling could get them past my toes. When I called Tingley to exchange them for a "queen-sized" pair, the woman I spoke with said, "Oh, no need to send them back; we'll just send you another pair."

I promised her I'd find a good home for the Tingleys. If you'd like a pair of Ladies large rubbers (8-9½--although they seem to run small, as my boots are 9½s), POST A COMMENT BELOW and tell me why you'd like them.

Last fall/winter/spring in Boise was eight months of rain interrupted by a month of snow between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The weather warmed just enough after each snow to turn it into ice before cooling again to hide the ice with a dusting of ball-bearing snow. I found that my Tingleys were just the ticket for dealing with the treacherous stuff.

This year, after our record La Niña winter, I may need my Tingleys until July.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Happy Bacon Chicken Day

Francis Bacon, scientist and essayist, died April 9, 1626 of pneumonia. He caught his death while testing his hypothesis that a chicken could be preserved with ice. The chicken was already dead; a recent snowfall provided the ice.

Although April snowstorms are now rare in southern England, Bacon paved the way for the lonely Maytag repairman during the Little Ice Age. Winters were colder in northern Europe during this period, which lasted from the 16th to the mid 19th century.

I'm a huge Francis Bacon fan because he developed the scientific method. I learned in a writing class that he was also an essayist. The instructor was surprised that Bacon had street cred as a scientist. I admire him even more now and aspire to combine science and writing as well as he did.

If you're either a scientist or a writer, join me next year on April 9, 2012 for Bacon Chicken Day. I've put it on my calendar so that I'll remember in time to plan something next year.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Growlers and Crushers

A big brown growler followed me home on a wet December evening. His tag said his name was Winter Cheer. I kept him, although he didn't last long.

I came of beer drinking age in Minnesota in the era of brown, returnable 12 oz glass bottles. A case of Fox Deluxe or Cold Spring beer (the same beer with different labels, according to one rumor) could be had for about 20 cents a bottle. You only bought the beer, not the bottles: those you returned, in their heavy cardboard case, the next time you bought beer.

Graduate school in Arizona found me swilling beer from blue aluminum cans. "High school beer," friends called it when I brought some on a New Year's Eve camping trip. After I moved to the Northwest I gave in to pressure from less understanding friends. I quaffed microbrews from brown glass bottles and then tossed the bottles. Tossed them into the recycling bucket, that is, then schlepped them to the recycling facility. I tiptoed across the landing and down the stairs so the recycling bucket didn't clink: I believe my neighbors are LDS.

While road-tripping last summer I found canned microbrews from Oskar Blues brewery: Imperial IPA, Pale Ale, Imperial Red...Imperial Stout. Stout in aluminum cans! It helped me brave the rain and the frightening trees at Mt. Rainier National Park that evening.

Cans are lighter, more compact, and safer on road trips than bottles. I understand that, overall, aluminum cans use less energy than glass bottles, as they require less material to make and much less energy to ship. In addition, although the numbers are still shockingly high, fewer cans are thrown away ("only" 55% of them nationwide) than bottles (a horrifying 77% nationwide). I tried to console myself with the fact that my bottles were among the 23% that were recycled. I assumed they were made into bottles again, as my aluminum cans are.

Last summer at Flat Top Ranch, John Peavey got me thinking about glass bottles one evening; we wondered where our recycled glass goes. I've since learned that the Ada County Highway District (ACHD) has been collecting glass bottles from Boise for the past seven years. They were grinding the bottles up and using the material as aggregate in road bases. That is, until four years ago when the glass crusher broke down, according to an article in the Boise Weekly. It wasn't repaired because ACHD now contracts out most of their aggregate needs, as they're building fewer roads.

But the bottles kept arriving at the grinding site south of town. Two glass mountain sprouted, then grew.

The Weekly recently reported a plan: curbside glass recycling in Boise, with higher charges to cover it. The glass will be crushed into fiberglass by a local company. Hopefully, more glass will be recycled with the city picking it up.

When I drink microbrew out of glass bottles what I'm really buying is the bottles, the energy to make them, the energy to ship them, and then to dispose of them. People who throw the bottles away are also buying space in landfills. The beer comes along with the bottles to make me feel better about my use of the world's energy and resources.

That is, until the big brown growler followed me home. Growlers are refillable half gallon glass jugs that breweries refill and resell. And I can now get Fat Tire in cans at WinCo, for those times when I can't get through an entire growler while it still tastes like beer.

Although I'll still have to visit to the recycling facility, as Boise will not pick up recycling at apartment buildings, between the growler and the Fat Tire cans there's less clinking on my way down the stairs.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Maricopa Memories

The Airstream trailer I lived in is gone but Headquarters is still there. The low tan building used to look out on the pickup trucks of cotton farmers and feed lot managers and the sagging cars of their employees. Now, a parade of SUVs heading to and from jobs in Phoenix shakes the building.

I can see where the trailer sat as I drive through the parking lot on the north side of Headquarters to park on the other side. The north side is the bar. From my trailer I had seen people lurch out the bar, fumble with their car keys, struggle to find the ignition, and drive away. More sedate drinkers parked on the other side, near the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant the tongue and groove paneling is preserved by a patina of refried bean, enchilada, and hamburger vapors. The wood is exposed where tables bump against it as patrons heave themselves out of the booths after the day's special. The day I visit it's a taco and a ground beef enchilada with rice and beans.

Framed Rotary Club presidents jostle each other on the back wall. Early presidents are black and white; later ones are in color and wear heavy rimmed-glasses. Decades of dust drape across the crowns of three velvet dress sombreros hanging nearby.

The housing boom of the early 2000s is preserved in the amber of polyurethaned ads in the table: realtors, excavators, and yard care services. The ads surround photos of four generations of the Ferrel and Mitchell families: the 1987 Maid of Cotton smiles, the first appointed mayor of Maricopa looks capable, and family members resemble each other.

After lunch my waitress gives me a ziplock bag of ice for the cooler in my trunk and tells me that the library, with its free WiFi, is on Porter Rd. and Smith-Enke. She names the roads as if she were saying, "Between Indian School and Camelback" in the middle of Phoenix. The last time I visited the Maricopa Library it was in a temporary building with a volunteer staff of one. I donated my Ms. Magazines after I read them.

I lived in Maricopa in the mid 1980s, before Phoenix commuters drove across the Gila River Akimel O'odham Reservation to find homes the realtors, banks, and cable TV shows convinced them they could afford. My Maricopa was a flat farmland where the only relief was the rectangles of pecan orchards and cotton fields. One evening I watched a dust storm move in and clocked its progress by counting the rows of trees disappearing in the Smith's orchard.

The pecan orchards were shady in the summer, but the cotton fields were steaming chest-high jungles that left my head and shoulders exposed to the sun as I scooped up insects in my sweep net and collected cotton bolls. I cracked the bolls open to look for pink bollworms later in the day, with beer, on my front porch.

The house I lived in the summer I looked for bollworms was nestled against the channelized Santa Cruz River. Each evening I sat on the berm that kept the river running in straight lines along field borders to watch the sun set behind the Sierra Estrellas, the Star Mountains. I watched the sun's slow waltz north to the summer solstice, where it paused before sliding back toward the south for its date with the winter solstice. The moon danced to a quicker beat, jitterbugging from southwest to northwest over the course of each month I lived next to the Santa Cruz.

Ripe cotton bolls and the Sierra Estrellas, 1984.

I leave the restaurant and drive toward the library. Maricopans no longer navigate by pecan orchards, cotton fields, and farm shops. Instead, signs direct drivers to developments by Centex, KB Homes, and DR Horton. You are your developer.

Tan houses covered with spray-on stucco loom over imitation adobe walls that strain to keep the metastasizing houses inside. Many of the second story windows peering over the walls are blank, emptied by foreclosures. Young, spindly desert trees and dusty shrubs try to make the barren roadways look welcoming. The desert sun is no longer captured by pecan trees, cotton, or alfalfa; it is reflected off of tile roofs, asphalt driveways, and paved roads that were graded soil the last time I drove them. Mary Poppins would have no trouble dancing across Maricopa from one roof to the next.

An over-55 development seems to have collected all the water from the rooftops and pavement in town. Water tumbles across artificial rocks in an artificial waterway and fills concrete block-lined pools between lush green lawns. I enter up the brick drive but am turned back by a 20-something guard in a faux stone guard shack larger than my apartment: I can only go in if I look at a model home. I tell him that I'm just visiting, seeing how Maricopa has changed since I lived here the mid 80s. "Oh," the young man in the guard uniform says, "It's really different now. There was nothing here back then!"

The Maricopa Library looks like an upscale bank--a cross between a strip mall and a Moroccan palace. I follow BMWs and Mercedes Benz across decorative pavers to park under a palm trees in the lot. Across Porter Road I see that the pistachio orchard planted by a man I used to date has been replanted with homes.

Three tall arches across the front of the library are filled with smoked glass windows and an imposing front door. Inside, wooden tables and chairs rest on earth toned carpeting. Translucent window screens are pulled down across the smoked glass, letting in light but keeping out the sun's heat.

A wooden basket-weave wall curves around the children's section; a Maricopa timeline is burned into it. I learn that Father Kino visited Maricopa Wells in 1694, that there was a 100-year flood in 1983, shortly before my first trip, then another one ten years later in 1993. The time line concludes near the rest rooms with the library's opening in 2009.

I answer email and check the mileage to Yuma, where I'm visiting friends this evening. I'm still reeling from the changes outside, but inside the library is like every other library where I've checked email while traveling. The remarkable thing is that it's lovely, but unremarkable.

Before leaving Maricopa I head east, away from the center of town, and see that the house where I watched the sun and moon set is gone. But the packed earth yard where it sat is still surrounded by farm fields, a buffer between Maricopa and the Gila River Reservation.

I turn south toward another surviving farm where I lived for a summer in a trailer near the quonset hut shop. As I near the highway to head to Yuma I stop a crew cab pickup truck leaving the farm to ask about a friend, who used to manage the place.

A large, hirsute man fills the driver's seat and his large brown dog fills the back seat. The man manages the farm now; my friend is his uncle, but they no longer talk. He identifies himself as the younger brother of the man I dated while I lived in Maricopa.

He tells me that his brother died several years ago. He is the first of my former boyfriends to die. I had assumed the first would be the one who sky dives, rock climbs, wind surfs, scuba dives, and once roller bladed, unsuccessfully, down Mexican Hay Mountain. I didn't ask if his brother lived long enough to see his cotton fields sprout a crop of tan houses with spray-on stucco.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


I saw kimchi at WinCo in Boise today and bought some. I've sampled a few unusual animals (warthog, otolan, fermented sea slug--best stored outdoors, conch penis, and animals I've known personally), but my unusual plant foods have been limited to palm wine, millet beer, and red fruits that looked good during the hungry season in Senegal. Kimchi was on my bucket list.

My kimchi is made of nappa cabbage, garlic, green onion, hot pepper, sugar, salt, paprika, and ginger. As promised, the cover was bulging when I pried off the shrink wrapped security ring.

Kimchi has a remarkable odor: although it was 9 hours since breakfast, lunch suddenly seemed optional. The contents behaved as directed and bubbled up to overflow and run onto the countertop.

I fished out some of the pieces of cabbage and found them disappointingly like cabbage with garlic, onion, and red pepper. I had bought the Mild kimchi; I'll try the Strong stuff next time. The cabbage was still delightfully crunchy, unlike the cabbage in my fridge.

The label warns me to keep my kimchi refrigerated. It's hard to imagine that it could spoil; perhaps the warning is to keep it from growing enough to take over the kitchen.