Tuesday, December 4, 2012
As an environmental researcher, Tye finds ways to manage invasive cheatgrass. In her off hours, she and her husband, Joe, are home brewers who teach others how to turn grains, hops, yeast, and water into ales, lagers, and stouts in Reno, Nevada. Tye combined her knowledge of cheatgrass with her love of brewing to come up with a way to restore cheatgrass-invaded areas while producing beer. "Every time people drink our beer, they are doing something to save their desert," she told a local news outlet.
Cheatgrass lives fast and dies young
Conservationists, ranchers, and fire fighters shudder each summer when nonnative cheatgrass dies to form a carpet of tinder.
Our native perennial grasses and sagebrush, on the other hand, hunker down and survive the hot, dry summer as dormant live plants. Rooted in place, they can't run and are killed by fire.
When the ashes have cooled, cheatgrass seeds blow or hitch rides on fur or socks into burned areas. With the native plants dead or damaged, the uninvited guests sprout to find they're the only ones at the banquet. Cheatgrass gobbles up soil nutrients and water and produces another crop of seeds to continue the cycle.
By harvesting cheatgrass seeds each year, Tye hopes to both reduce the number of cheatgrass plants and improve conditions for our native plants. Fewer cheatgrass seeds means fewer cheatgrass plants sprouting. Repeatedly taking off the nitrogen-rich seeds for beer should gradually reduce the level of this plant nutrient in the soil.
Fast-growing cheatgrass needs lots of nitrogen to support its lifestyle. But the native plants, with their more tortoise-like approach to the race for survival, thrive in less fertile conditions. Tye will count the cheatgrass seeds and measure the soil nitrogen to know when native plants have the best chances. Then she'll reseed the area with a mix of native species.
Amber ale and more
Ira Flatow tasted Tye and Joe’s amber ale cheatgrass beer and pronounced it "delicious." Tye explained to the Science Friday host that they mix barley with the cheatgrass seeds. Barley adds an enzyme that turns starch in the seeds into sugar; cheatgrass lacks this enzyme. Once the sugar is released, yeast converts it to alcohol.
The couple isn’t satisfied with just one type of beer. Their company, Bromus Tech, is working with Lance Jergensen, an independent malster who specializes in local barleys, and Ryan Quinlan, at Great Basin Brewery, to develop several different cheatgrass beers.
Tye's ideas aren't limited to beverages. She points out that agricultural chemicals are rarely used on the wildlands that cheatgrass invades. She plans to use the spends seeds left from the brewing process to produce organic grass fed beef. You'll be able to have an organic grass-fed cheatgrass-finished burger with your cheatgrass beer.
Once they’ve perfected their line of beers and fine-tuned their restoration techniques, Tye and Joe will share their knowledge with other brewers. Tye envisions small breweries across the West harvesting local cheatgrass and producing delicious beers. "I think that Idaho cheatgrass beer would catch on like wildfire," she told Ira Flatow.
Monday, October 29, 2012
When the rangeland manager on the phone saw the first bare areas, he was surprised. When he found whole valleys without plants, he called the new plant ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Boise. I said I didn’t know where the cheatgrass went, but I’d take a look.
We were looking for a fugitive with few friends. Weedy, nonnative cheatgrass usually blankets large swaths of the Intermountain West with nearly pure stands. It moves in after native plants are killed by fire, weakened by drought, or repeatedly damaged by people or livestock. The plants sprout in the fall or early spring across the lowest, driest parts of the West. Cheatgrass sinks deep roots while it waits to zoom ahead of the native plants when the weather warms. Before it dies each spring, the plants produce a bumper crop of seeds to continue the cycle.
A few days after the alarming phone call, I stood in what had been rangeland. It looked as if the area had been bladed for a large housing development. The few surviving plants were about as far apart as city streets. The survivors were all native perennials that were living it up with the cheatgrass gone: they used the abundant water and food to grow larger than usual.
The edges of the denuded area looked as if the ‘dozer driver had stopped for lunch and not come back. Miles of bare soil ended abruptly in normal-looking cheatgrass. The far border of the dieoff only went partway up the slope of the nearby mountains, as if the ‘dozer driver thought better of working on steep slopes.
I had a long list of ways plants can die; I needed help narrowing down my list. I stopped at the nearest ranch and asked about the mystery.
The couple working in the corral was somewhat younger than the century-old ranch, but they hadn’t seen a year without cheatgrass before. “My son says it’s army cutworm. He lives up the road,” said the woman, who wore a painful-looking shiner inflicted by one of the horses.
The son, Jim, described seeing insect larvae “eating every green shoot” on a warm, dry January evening. “It was warmer than today,” he said, as I shivered in the June dusk in front of his house. Jim did what researchers do: he photographed the insects and took some to the local U.S. Department of Agriculture office. The entomologist ID’d them as army cutworms.
As I drove away, I congratulated myself on inquiring locally to solve the mystery in record time. Then I did what researchers do: I got a second opinion.
“Army cutworms??” My entomologist friend’s voice shot up in surprise. “No way. Army cutworms would never eat that much cheatgrass.” She vouched for the insects--they were innocent. I needed a third opinion.
The next entomologist laughed out loud. I went back to my list of Ways Plants Can Die.
Walking to and from work, or driving to remote field sites, I went over my mental list: Frost? Cold air drainage might damage plants in the bottoms of the valleys and leave those on nearby slopes. Fungal root disease? Unlikely during a warm, dry winter--fungi need abundant moisture. And how could it kill ALL the plants in an area? And why would it suddenly stop killing plants at the edges of patches?
Months later, a second witness came forward. A researcher in northern Utah had seen larvae destroying his cheatgrass experiment.
Finally, that fall, I found an entomologist in western Colorado who had seen army cutworms devouring cheatgrass and crops in his area. He suspected that the insects had help, in the form of a disease that weakened the plants. The outbreak of larvae hadn’t surprised this witness, as he’d noticed more miller moths than usual the previous fall. Miller moths are adult army cutworms.
Although few people know army cutworms in the Intermountain West, residents east of the Rockies know both larvae and adults all too well.
Between its summer wildfires and winter blizzards, Colorado’s Front Range suffers semiannual plagues of miller moths. Billions of the insects invade in spring and late summer as they migrate between the Great Plains and the Greater Yellowstone area.
The moths annoy local residents by loitering around lights, invading homes, and defecating on walls. Media describe “squadrons” of moths “attacking” and “dive-bombing” people. The insects’ unpleasant habits make it hard to appreciate the impressive journey these tiny creatures complete: on a 2 inch wing span, miller moths make a thousand-mile round trip on their summer vacation.
The moths that fly through Denver and Fort Collins each spring hatched in the soil of the Great Plains the previous winter. The army cutworm larvae hide underground during the day and come out to feed at night. Sprouting fields of wheat, and other crops, are just the right height for the hungry insects.
The cutworms' nocturnal habit makes it hard to catch them in the act of destroying crops. The young larvae are so tiny that it's hard to see them at all--until it's too late. The insects earn their moniker when they reach 1½ inches and are mostly jaws. After consuming all the food in an area, the army marches off in search of more. The destruction ends when the troops stop, drop, and pupate in the soil. They emerge several weeks later as miller moths.
Although a long, wet spring can persuade the moths to linger and feed along the Front Range for weeks, their summer home is high elevation slopes around Yellowstone Park. The insects feed at night and congregate among the rocks of cool talus slopes during the day. The gatherings of moths are grizzly bear banquets. By eating as many as 40,000 moths a day, the bears get up to half their yearly energy from the maligned miller moths.
In late summer, the surviving moths turn their back on the Rockies and head back east to the Great Plains. Or do they all? Do any of the Yellowstone moths fly west? Or do "our" miller moths spend their summers in talus slopes closer to home?
Farmers in the Great Plains check their fields for army cutworms, homeowners along the Front Range recalk their windows before the miller moth migration, and Yellowstone’s bears count on the plump insects to get them through the next winter. But the army cutworm outbreak of 2003 was a surprise attack in the Intermountain West. We don’t know exactly why there were so many larvae that year or even where the adults spent the previous summer.
I blame army cutworms, perhaps working with a pathogen accomplice, for the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of acres of cheatgrass in the Intermountain West in 2003. The weather was perfect for the insects, the cheatgrass disappeared when the larvae were feeding most voraciously, and their need to stop eating and pupate could account for the sharp borders of the bare areas. (Full disclosure: some other researchers scoff at the idea.)
We haven't had a big army cutworm year since 2003--or seen big cheatgrass dieoffs. But the insects are still here, waiting for their next opportunity. Our warming climate could give them many opportunities in the future.
Army cutworms need both a mild winter and lots of eggs to reach impressive numbers. That means lots of miller moths have to return from their summer journey. When we see high numbers of miller moths in late summer, followed by a warm, dry winter, we need to start looking for army cutworms on our rangelands. When we see bare areas where we expect to see cheatgrass, it’s time to get out the seeders and reseed those areas with native perennial plants. Without competition from cheatgrass, the seeded plants will be able to establish vigorous stands that can hold the line against cheatgrass.
In August and September, I trapped and counted miller moths in the foothills of the Boise Front. Pheromones--scents that female moths make to attract males--lured males into the traps.
I'll do this every year, so I'll know when to start looking for army cutworms and watching for bare areas. And the next time someone calls with a missing cheatgrass report, I'll start with my prime suspect.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
My two brothers and I had just escaped from the car where we had spent two days tormenting each other with words and looks. Six fugitive feet thumped the slate stones around our grandmother's porch and past the well to the dinner bell waiting on a metal pole next to her garden. We took turns pulling the thick wire and filling the garden with sound. We pulled to announce our arrival, we rang for the joyful noise of it, we sounded a greeting to our cousins on the next farm.
My turn peeled across the wheat field, around the corner of the hen house, among the black walnuts in the woods, over the backs of the cows in the lane, and across the wooden bridge at the creek, which might have sheltered trolls. I let go of the wire and the tones slowed, softened to silence.
I hadn’t rung a dinner bell since that summer, when we spent six weeks on our grandmother’s farm while our dad went to summer school.
The bell that invited me to ring it this time perched on a wooden tower in a campground two thousand miles and many decades from my grandmother’s farm. I looked up at it through red geraniums, white alyssum, and blue trailing lobelia. U.S. and Washington state flags spread from opposite sides of the tower like wings.
This time, my peels disappeared into the s forest that threatened to swallow the campground. My hands itched to pull the cord again and again. I wanted to punch through the trees and bounce the sound off the trunks of the Doug fir and Sitka spruce, let it echo across hollow clear cuts, and send it cascading down the rocky gorge of the Little North River nearby. I overpowered the seven year old in me after two rings and forced my fingers to release the cord.
Long before I had an excuse to reach for the cord again, a woman in jeans a size I haven’t squeezed into since high school walked briskly around the corner of the bell tower. She wore a bucket around her neck made from a restaurant-sized tin can with holes in it for a string. Raspberries filled a third of the can and pulsed with sugar pumped into them by the summer sun.
"I’m glad you rang the bell," she said. "I was in the garden."
Ann introduced herself and opened the office. She told me that she and her husband shared the bounty of their large garden with guests. The blueberries weren’t quite ripe, but the raspberries were at their peak, and many kinds of greens were ready. Greens? I needed greens!
I had escaped Boise’s 100-degree bright summer for camping and hiking in the dripping moss and fairy tale fog of the Olympic Peninsula. Headed south on the coast highway, I struggled to keep my eyelids open against the pressure of a lumberjack-sized lunch. I squinted at the Washington atlas and saw an RV Park hugging the road in Artic, the town named through poor penmanship: the founder meant to name the place after his wife, "Arta," but a clerk misread his writing.
I sighed and heaved the atlas back onto the passenger seat. I’d been welcome in Olympic National Park, but private RV parks rarely allow tenters. The ones that do often banish fabric accommodations out of sight in the noisiest, muddiest corner, closest to the highway. The manager of a park where I wanted to stay in Oregon explained why: "Our RVers don’t like tenters.”
I started camping when RVs were as rare as showers in a Forest Service campground. Our parents took us to Interstate State Park, near our home in Minneapolis. I was enchanted by the stiff, musty canvas pup tent our dad set up in the back yard for a trial run. Two end poles kept most of the heavy tent from collapsing, with the help of a tangle of oily jute ropes and muddy wooden stakes with flat mushroom tops.
As I ran on the trails and jumped in and out of the potholes at the state park, I dreamed about sleeping that night in the tent. I could hear the wind shaking the stiff canvas and smell the oily fabric. My first night outdoors! But our dad made up beds for my younger brother and me in the car. In the car? That wasn’t sleeping outside! I’d been in a car before. I salve that childhood disappointment every time I set up my tent or shake out my sleeping bag or on a sandy beach during a river trip.
I glanced halfheartedly at the Artic Park sign as I passed. So halfheartedly that I couldn’t read it all before it disappeared behind me. On my second pass, I read "Tenting" and "Bicyclers welcome" at the bottom. I pulled in and walked to the office. Next to the office was a bell tower.
As Ann told me about the park and garden, a grizzled Garrison Keillor lookalike came in. She introduced her husband, Roy, who seconded Ann’s welcome. I asked about the squirrel dashing up and down trees, slashing its tail and jabbering at me as if I’d parked in his spot. Roy said it was a Douglas squirrel; the two of them were on opposite sides of the War of the Bird Feeders.
Ann showed me the garden and invited me to pick a bowl of raspberries for my breakfast. She assured me she hadn’t gotten them all. “Everyone’s at a different height so they see different berries. But please leave the Cascade berries; we use them for wine.” I was welcome to Swiss chard, lettuce, and kale, plus oregano, fennel, and something lemony from the herb garden. "Anything but the foxglove," Ann summed up.
My grandmother’s garden stretched from the dinner bell to the field that was in wheat the year we stayed six weeks. My young eyes could hardly imagine an end to the garden. I wanted to dig my toes into the damp soil under the scratchy straw, but Grandmother kept the rows of tomatoes, green beans, carrots, lettuce, strawberries, and asparagus firmly mulched.
Gladiolas next to the fence by the hen house were the only nonedible crop. I can still see her walking into Quaker meeting, her determined stride, leaning forward slightly, with a slight hitch of age, carrying a sturdy blue vase of "glads.”
We kids didn’t know what good food was. Vegetables and greens were obstacles to consume so we could go back to playing with the toad in the back yard, messing around at the creek, or watching the hogs in the barn lot. Home-canned morels were weird looking and gross. Lucky for us, our dad didn’t trust his mother-in-law's skill at identifying ascomycetes: he didn’t want us eating those things. My mother and grandmother didn’t argue; they served themselves a few more.
In Ann and Roy’s garden, I picked a grocery bag full of greens and herbs, plus a bowl of raspberries for breakfast (berries consumed while picking not shown). A net bag made a great camp salad spinner. I added sliced baby carrots, olive oil, and lime juice for the perfect antidote to a lumberjack lunch. A beer catalyst brought complete recovery.
I was writing in my camp chair at dusk when a white truck pulled a trailer past my site and circled around to an empty spot. A man got out and walked to the office. A moment later, the dinner bell rang.
Roy walked over from the house to check the man in. In a splash of light near the bell tower, the men talked about traveling, trailers, and trucks. They talked so long that a girl, a little older than I was when I rang my grandmother’s bell, left the trailer and walked to the office.
She waited for a break in the conversation to ask, "Can I ring the bell?"
“Sure,” said Roy.
The sound spiraled up from the bell tower to the Douglas squirrel’s nest. He lifted his head, listened, then tucked his nose under his tail and went back to sleep. The sound bounced across the berry canes, the salad greens, and the herb garden to the forest. The trees didn’t notice the sound, but I did. She rang for both of us when she pulled the cord again and again.
As I got ready for bed, an invisible orchestra of crickets scratched away under a Milky Way I see so infrequently that it always astonishes me. I zipped into my sleeping bag and thought about the fresh raspberries waiting for me in the cooler.
I hope that girl has a grandmother with a dinner bell in her backyard and a farm with a creek beyond the garden. Or was that the first real bell she’d heard among the electronic beeps that crowd, fill, deafen, clang, bang, her life? Would she pick berries and greens in the garden the next day? Or does she only eat food from the grocery store?
I wonder if the girl longed to leave the trailer and sleep in a tent as much as I did on my first camping trip. Will she find the same magic in sleeping outdoors that I do? When I set up my tent for the last time, I hope she'll be doing the same thing somewhere, and thinking about her journey from joyous bell ringer to confident camper.
Note: In telling this story, I combined two conversations into one, to improve the flow.
Saturday, October 6, 2012
The cake was one of my most successful creations: dense, bright red layers of buttery sweetness hiding under an innocent white cloak of cream cheese frosting.
My mother and I insisted that my niece and brother take ALL the leftover cake home. My niece took cake home to her roomate, Molly Pan, an actress now based in Hollywood. My brother took cake home and put it in his refrigerator.
My sister-in-law was up early the next morning to feed her vacationing brother’s rabbits before work. She opened the refrigerator, saw red velvet cake, and was back in elementary school.
She stayed home sick from school and got up in the middle of the day. Her mother had already done a half day's work. She was drinking coffee and eating cake.
The young patient's appetite improved. "Can I have some cake"?
"No. No, you can’t have cake for breakfast. You need to have cereal."
"I don’t want cereal. I want cake"!
Tears didn’t produce cake for breakfast; she had cereal. She told herself that someday, she was going to have CAKE for BREAKFAST.
My sister-in-law reached for the red velvet cake and crossed another thing off her bucket list.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
The book's title suggested an attitude of gratitude that the author was eager to share. It was only a suggestion. Instead, the author insisted I use a multi-pronged attack to smother the public with My Brand. I was to launch aural and visual assaults in order to ‘increase customer loyalty and my profits!’
While my ears ring, I'm holding my tent bag and searching for the driest mud at Lake End Park Campground in Morgan City, Louisiana. A tree and picnic table preserve the deepest mud beneath them; I unfurl my tent in the least unappealing spot.
I’m disgusted with myself for wasting a day on the unrelentingly unhelpful audio book and I don't want to spend the evening as a performance artist. I cancel my Basmati Rice and Alu Mattar Show for the evening. I flee the zoo for dinner out.
The Morgan City Library has free wifi for Googling restaurants. The low brick building crouches in the shadow of the City Hall water tower on a street that makes a full stop at the Atchafalaya River.
I find Rita Mae’s Kitchen on a straight forward page at morgancitymain- street.com. The restaurant apologizes for not serving alcohol and offers a "nice, cozy, and respectable environment for you, the customer." A review on Urbanspoon says, “Home Cook'N At It's BEST !!!” I head to a home without mud or an audience.
The restaurant is on the far side of Lawrence Park, the sound stage for the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival each September. U.S. Highway 90 thunders overhead at the end of Rita Mae’s block. Travelers on their way to Lafayette or New Orleans can’t stop for slow food. They’ll get off their cell phones long enough to stop at golden arches or a big red B for meals with no surprises or love.
Rita Mae welcomes hungry diners in a yellow house on Federal Street. The enclosed porch is lined with a counter and stools overlooking angle parking and a snippet of thick tropical lawn. Inside, in what had been the living room, a note near the cash register reminds, "Don't forget the customer on the porch."
I select a round table. A young woman appears at the kitchen door and is surprised to see me. I ask for the smothered okra and shrimp over rice special on the chalkboard and she disappears without writing a ticket.
People are eating at two or three of the other tables. Families talk about school and work; friends catch up. A procession of men and women pick up food to go. A man I learn later is Rita Mae’s son, Harry, lugs bags of crab burgers, po’ boys, breaded pork chops, catfish, and seafood gumbo out of the kitchen. He’s a good-sized walking advertisement for the food. Harry greets everyone and catches up with them before they take dinner home.
Rita Mae's okra and shrimp reminds me of supakanja in my Senegalese Peace Corps village. The concoction stopped me cold the first time I faced it in the communal bowl: slimy okra, lumpy-orange industrial-tasting unrefined palm oil, fermented tree seeds, and dried, smoked fish mashed together and served on top of an otherwise perfectly good bowl of rice. But supakanja and the tropical heat wore me down and I grew to love the strong flavors and distinctive textures of the dish.
A woman in honestly worn jeans and a sleeveless shirt that proves women sweat has a few minutes before Harry brings her food out. She identifies me as a new arrival and appoints herself my guide. First, she tidies up my pronunciation of Ata-, Achl-, Afla-, At-cha-fa-la-ya. Her husband catches crawfish on the At-cha-fa-la-ya and she mows lawns in Morgan City.
Her husband and his helper took a swim when their crawfish boat flipped this morning. No one was lost, including the $900 of catch. Last year, 2010, was her husband’s best crawfish year ever. This year, he's making a fraction as much. "The water went down too fast and the crawfish hardened up too soon," she explains. She leaves with her food before I can ask about hardening crawfish.
I have room for bread pudding, but no one asks if I want anything more. No one brings a check. I watch TV as the tide of customers turns from incoming to outgoing.
Sometime after dark, I realize that satisfied diners get up and walk to the register, which makes Harry appear. The floor bows in his honor each time he passes my table. I try it and Harry appears for me, too. He remembers what I ate and I pay for it.
Smothered okra isn’t on the chalkboard when I return to Rita Mae’s two nights later. But Harry finds some in the kitchen and customizes it with an extra side of peas. It’s my second meal at Rita Mae's and I’m family.
After my okra and peas, I consume a bowl of bread pudding that would have fed my Senegalese host family of 13 and top off the evening with a long conversation with Harry at the register. He says he heard me tell the woman who mows lawns that I can’t seem to get enough vegetables when I travel.
Harry tried driving truck Up North a time or two, but it wasn’t for him. The North, or the driving, I can’t tell, but it wasn't the work God gave him to do. He is a cook. Harry cooked on a barge that plied the Intercoastal Waterway, which provides safe passage between Texas and New Jersey. Harry cooked on oilrigs, where his meals must have been the high point of a duty station with nothing to look at but water. Now, he’s back home in Morgan City, cooking at his family’s restaurant.
I doubt Rita Mae has spent a day listening to an audio book on social media. I don’t think she Tweets, blogs, or uses Groupon. She doesn’t need social media; she lives her social contract. Rita Mae and her family don’t look for ways to increase their profits; they provide good food in a pleasant place. Rita Mae doesn’t make her customers “feel appreciated”; she shows her guests they’re loved.
Saturday, September 1, 2012
But I’m often the riffraff that campgrounds want to keep out. Especially in Louisiana, where I visited last summer.
I should have been suspicious of the bear story. The high school student in the entrance booth at Kemper Williams Park seemed a bit too happy to tell me that they had closed the tent sites because of a lurking bear. "How about I stay, but I don’t sleep on the bacon"? I asked. She suggested I try Lincoln Park in Morgan City, LA, just down the road.
While I was looking for Lincoln Park on the north side of town, I saw Lake End Park and pulled in (by the third day I realized there was no "Lincoln Park"). It was Kemper Williams’ week to use the bear story, so they let me stay. In a tent site--no tents in the RV sites.
The tent sites are in the corner of the park where the highway makes a right angle turn and the jake brakes roar
Large trees shade the tent sites, protecting us from the icy 80o breezes off the lake and preserving the mud puddles under the picnic tables and the mold growing in the food spilled on top.
PSA test right away. You can collect enough water to lather up by rubbing your washcloth along the wall directly below the dribbling shower head. After a good lather, just rub yourself back and forth on the wall to rinse off.
Your clean clothes, dirty clothes, towel, and toiletries hanging on the single hook or slung over the stall door are in no danger of being splashed.
The only fan in the women’s bathroom/shower was small, disassembled, and stationary when I visited. Getting ready in the morning took longer than usual because I had to make periodic trips outside into the lower (80%) humidity to let enough sweat evaporate off my face that the next layer of makeup would stick to it.
I brought performance art to Lake End Park. A cloud of golf carts had hitched rides into the park with the RVs. A parade of low-rider carts, lights blazing and music pumping, circled around and around at dusk and beyond. The drivers toured the parking lots and recircled through the parking area in front of the tent sites. Cart after noisy cart slowed and heads swiveled to watch me feeding and grooming myself in my native habitat.
In the mornings a foot parade of retired Morganites perambulated the park. They strode the path behind the tent sites and only watched out of the corner of their eye. I said good morning to one septuagenarian and heard his complete medical history in reply.
On a day trip to Cocodrie, LA I looked for a campground with fewer
I assured each campground owner that the parish sheriff hadn’t been summoned to Palmetto Island or Lake Fausse Pointe State Parks, where I'd stayed the previous week. I reminded them of my clean record ("never convicted"), gave them my Dun’s number, and cited my stratospheric credit score. I offered college transcripts and a letter from my mother. No dice; no tenters.
On my last morning at Lake End I took a walk over to the RVers side of the park and fell down a marsh rabbit hole. As I tumbled, I saw breezy RV sites next to the lake
I bumped my head as I careened down the rabbit hole and saw a large building with restrooms. I went in and turned on one of the many showers. I jumped back as a torrent of water gushed past me.
I caught a glimpse of dual vents in the ceiling
I woke up and hit the road to Slidell, LA, which doesn't seem to have crosswalks or pedestrian crossing signals. I stayed in the Motel 6 and no one watched me.
I never found a private campground in Louisiana that would let me spend the night. Lake End is a city park and the other places I stayed were state parks.
State and federal campgrounds allow tenters and RVers access to all sites and facilities. But there's a whole lot of real estate without these public services, especially in the eastern U.S. Lake End Park has the greatest contrast between RV and tent sites and facilities that I’ve seen, but the pattern is familiar. Private campgrounds that allow tenters usually sequester them in the noisiest, muddiest, dankest corner, as far away from the quiet, peaceful, dry RV sites as possible. When tenters’ facilities are separate, they are not equal; they are separate and unequal.
My visit to Louisiana made me think that tenters are being discriminated against. Now I wonder if there's something about me that campgrounds don't like: Am I not supposed to be still camping at my age? When I'm pleasant to the attendant at check-in, do I seem like a push-over who won't complain? (Well, OK, that last part's true. But I have a blog now.)
Last month I hit Tillamook, Oregon the same week as the County Fair. I finally found a tent site at the Tillamook/Bay City RV Park. The attendant was sorry to tell me that the only tent site she had was "a narrow one." "Narrow" being less than 10 feet wide. She didn’t mention that the "narrow" site was in the farthest corner of the park by the highway intersection or that it was less than 10 feet from the sewage outfall, where every night-time toilet flush would echo up the casing.
The next morning there were still several unoccupied spacious tent sites away from the highway and sewage outfall. There must have been a terrible highway accident to prevent that many people from making it to their reserved sites. I'm surprised I didn't hear the sirens--I was right next to the highway.
But please don't think that my narrow site was completely lacking in amenities. It did have artwork.
1When three county sheriff’s deputies converged on me last April I was pulling weeds on my mother’s farm. My family has been pulling weeds there for 147 years. We’re not done yet.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Last summer I found a found a piece of Gorée in St. Martinville, Louisiana. I camped at Lake Fausse Pointe State Park nearby and spent a few days exploring the town of 6,000 that straddles Bayou Teche.
St. Martinville Historic District I found buildings from the 1800s, a large oak, and a much-visited grave that might or might not have a person in it.
The African American Museum nestles under the Evangeline Oak and overlooks the Teche. At the first display I traded the wrought iron balconies and live oaks outside for a kora (stringed musical instrument) and kel (large mixing bowl made from half an outsized gourd). When you want to compliment a Senegalese cook you tell her your stomach is stretched as tight as a kel.
neem tree. Many of St. Martinville’s earliest non-Native American residents were African slaves, some of whom might have passed through Gorée’s Slave House. More recently, the Louisiana town forged a happier connection by becoming the sister city of Gorée Island.
Spidery 17th century script in an open ledger at the museum listed a dozen ships that traveled the Middle Passage with human cargo. The display noted that survival rates were higher on French ships than on British ships, due to better care for passengers.
On the young readers’ shelf in a corner, I found a book about Senegal, part of the Enchantment of the World series. In grade school I had been enchanted by a story in Young Miss magazine about a woman who went to Africa with the Peace Corps. I saved the article for years and planned my Peace Corps trip to and go to Africa.
I left St. Martinville that evening as a pink flamingo sunset painted mounds of low clouds behind me. I turned on to progressively smaller roads winding through ever-smaller towns. The first homes were brick and had Greek columns. A man struggled to the curb with a tub of grass clippings from a lawn that could have produced a good amount of beef.
Farther on manufactured homes sprouted above ground swimming pools or a lawn-scale forest of columns topped with colored metal balls. As the road lost all pretense of shoulders the mobile homes no longer aspired to manufactured status, then surrendered to a burned out shell with tan insulation oozing out of its carcass. Finally, an ancient school bus colluded with a lean-to of found materials with a corrugated metal roof.
Youssou N’Dour and Alan Stivell sang A United Earth.
N'dour released his fourth album, Giande (The Lion), the year I arrived in Senegal. Giande and Set (Clean), his next album, were the sound track for my Peace Corps life. When one of my trips to Dakar for a periodic gamma globulin shot coincided with N'dour coming home from the road, he serenaded me, and the entire neighborhood of Fann Hock, from his nightclub until dawn.
N'dour is still making music and I'm still buying his albums. But I no longer buy them as cassette tapes from a box balanced on the head of a music seller on the Ponty, in Dakar.
By the time I pulled back into my campsite at Lake Fausse Pointe I had traveled much more than the 25 mile round trip shown on the odometer.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
I backed in through the shade of the trees and stopped at the far end of the paved drive. A travel trailer walled me in on the west; an RV, supported by a family-sized tent and a small herd of pickup trucks, did the same on the east. Most of the other campsites at Village Creek State Park roiled with Boy Scouts on a Friday afternoon last June.
I had worked my way from the convection oven of West Texas to the sauna of East Texas. Air conditioners droned in stereo and young RVers argued with their parents. The trailer was quiet, its retired couple relaxing indoors: my favorite kind of campground neighbor. I set up my tent and got out my chair and book.
An air-conditioned woman in shorts threaded her way through the shrubs between the travel trailer’s site and mine and apologized for interrupting my reading. She and her husband couldn't possibly eat all the fajitas...could I come help them out with dinner? I would like nothing better. I followed her back through the shrubs to a circle of lawn chairs near a tablecloth-draped picnic table. The trailer loomed over us.
Roy and Ruby1, had been teenagers when they married. He worked in an auto parts store and she stayed home with their children. Entertainment was a tank-full of 30-cent-a-gallon gasoline for a road trip. One Sunday they headed southeast to Avery Island, Louisiana. The McIlhenny family ferments white oak barrels full of red peppers into Tabasco sauce on the island and welcomes visitors to their gardens, aviaries, and factory.
"But we got there and I didn’t even have a dollar to get across the bridge onto the island," Roy said. His embarrassment was mixed with nostalgia.
"But now," said Roy, "Life is great. Just great."
Ruby came out of the trailer with plates and silverware and put them on the table. Roy and Ruby built a house together when they were 25 and their three children were young. They still live the house, 45 years later.
"It’s a great house," Roy said.
Ruby brought out the fajitas fixings. She assembled one for Roy, added potato salad to his plate, and took it to him. He thanked her and set to work adding the dinner to the half century of Ruby’s good cooking that stretched his polo shirt tight across his torso.
Ruby prepared her own plate and sat down. When I poured a good-sized glug of salsa on my fajita Ruby asked, "Do you like hot sauce? I meant to get mild salsa; we don’t eat the hot stuff. You can take it!" I assured her I would give the salsa a good home.
After their children were well into school, Ruby went to college, got an art degree and taught a generation of students at the nearby high school.
When it was my turn to share the high points of my life I said that I was a scientist--a plant ecologist. That was the end of my turn.
On Sunday morning I chatted with Roy as he worked on one of the anti-sway bars for the trailer he was hitching up. The hitching process was not going great and he could not seem to find the correct wrench in his toolbox. I could not offer any mechanical advice, so I provided moral support.
Roy remembered another thing that was not as great as it could be: he asked if I liked to read about science. Well, of course! He went inside and returned with a booklet, which he handed to me.
“Are you done with it?” I asked, not wanting to take it if he wasn’t.
“Oh yes. You can have it,” he said.
On the front of the booklet, a palm tree-studded tropical island and a coral reef inhabited by blue, orange, and red fish were separated by a white banner that asked, "Was Life Created?" A sea turtle swam toward the bottom right corner, pointing the way to the answer.
"Oh, it’s anti-evolution," I said. Although my comment lacked tact, it was accurate.
"Well, what do you believe?" Roy asked.
I gave my standard answer: "Evolution isn’t a belief system. All science does is describe how the world works."
I provided another few minutes of moral support, but the weather was just great for a hike to see the three species of southern pines in the park. I left Roy getting the anti-sway bar back to great.
The booklet Roy gave me was from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the publishing arm of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The booklet described how everything on Earth is just right to support our lives: the right distance from the sun, the right-sized moon to create tides and stabilize the Earth’s rotation, the right planetary tilt to drive seasonal changes, and a magnetic field and ozone layer to let through just the right amount of radiation.
The booklet did not ask, "Was the Earth created for us or were we created for the Earth?"
Despite earning three degrees in biological fields, I did not know until I read "Was Life Created?" that researchers have tried to create new species by irradiating organisms. Nor did I know that their failure to do this proved that genetic mutations, which we all have, do not provide the raw material for natural selection.
I do know that plant breeders have irradiated crop plants to produce genetic mutations they hope might code for useful traits. Although this approach has produced several improved crop varieties, such as Alamo-X oats, many of the mutations produced by radiation are either lethal or simply not useful in plant breeding.
Although I have written about the origin of a new plant species I had not heard that natural selection had been proven not to exist when Galapagos finches did not evolve into new species during a 30-year study.
Perhaps Roy’s great life would be only a so-so life if random genetic changes and natural selection over billions of years produced the astonishing complexity of life on Earth. I find evolution to be the most parsimonious explanation, requiring the fewest unexplained miracles. The miracle of evolution seems like a really great one to me.
1Not their real names. I have also changed a few other minor details in this story.
Monday, July 9, 2012
If I had been born a Millennial instead of a Boomer, I might have been one of the New Agrarians. Like me, many of these young people grew up in cities and yearned for a closer relationship with the land than hiking and camping provide.
I met some of these creative, connected, and confident young farmers at the Quivira Coalition’s November, 2011 conference. I heard their stories and envied their lives connecting people to the land through food.
I introduced the readers of Rangelands magazine to these New Agrarians in my June, 2012 column.
Monday, June 25, 2012
The Snake River Plain cracks a smile across southern Idaho. It curves down from the Centennial Mountains on the east toward Nevada, then turns up northwest toward Oregon. I followed the Plain to Boise a decade ago to work as a federal ecologist, one of thousands of new Idahoans flooding the Plain and loving it to death.
The hot spot that now powers the geysers of Yellowstone poured the Plain’s foundation. As the Ice Age thawed, Lake Bonneville escaped down the Snake River. The megaflood blasted out house-sized chunks of lava and cut laugh lines into the Plain.
Serene mountains outline the edges of the smile and help me navigate unpaved roads on the sagebrush desert. My car kicks up silt that nearly matches its Champagne Gold paint.
Formed from fire and shaped by water, the Plain is dominated by wind in spring. This is when I study the effects of federal vegetation improvement projects on sage grouse habitat. In less disturbed areas, sagebrush is skirted by duvets of plush moss, attended by native grasses, and dotted with purple larkspur and lupine. In summer, yellow rabbitbrush shines. The grouse and I startle each other when I walk too close to where they hide from legal battles over the status of their species.
In more disturbed areas, ragged cheatgrass spears up among the native plants, ready to carry wildfire. The cheatgrass coalesces into scabs after fire removes the sagebrush. Much of the lower elevations have been scabbed over.
Sterile green bandages of non-native wheatgrass plantings protect against the invasive cheatgrass. The plantings fade to monochrome gold in summer.
Sage grouse congregate among more recent lava flows around Craters of the Moon. The flows are impossible to plow, so settlers did not sink roots into the lava. It is tough on boots, tires, and hoofs, which leave the land to the grouse. I conclude that sage grouse would benefit from the application of more lava. The Craters operate on a longer time frame than federal funding cycles, but an eruption is due.
I worry about the Plain. The Plain cracks a smile.
Friday, June 22, 2012
The NPR journalist recently talked about her love of Jazzercise. "Jazzercise is, in my case, a group of women of a certain age — although there are a few young ones in the class — who kind of flounce around to so-called contemporary music. It's the only exercise I've ever stuck with, and I've been doing it for something like 20 years."
I missed Jazzercise, which got big while I was wearing metal-framed glasses in the early 1980s. The exercise program was more fun than aerobics, which started while I was wearing glasses with plastic frames in the 1960s. I fell in with Zumba in the 2010s, while wearing half frame glasses. I can’t imagine life without Zumba--I already have a provider lined up in the small town in Indiana where I’ll be later this summer.
All three exercise programs are done to music, mostly by women in groups. They all have creation myths and are now a marketer’s dream. These exercise empires include instructor certification, branded clothing, franchises, and video cassettes (now DVDs). Zumba is Zumba
Aerobics was developed by a physician to reduce heart disease. Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper improved the fitness of U.S. military personnel and NASA astronauts before starting The Cooper Institute in 1970. The institute is dedicated to preventative medicine and the benefits of physical activity. A dancer developed routines based on Cooper’s 1968 book, which is still available.
Jazzercise was born in the late 1960s, when a dancer in Evanston, Illinois updated her exercise class with jazz tunes. By 1983 there were Jazzercise franchises in all 50 states.
The Zumba creation myth describes a happy accident when Beto Perez forgot the CD of music for the exercise class he was teaching in Cali, Columbia. He improvised salsa and merengue dance routines to the Latin music he had in his bag that day. Perez came to Miami in 2001 and added the
Some of the women in my Zumba class are wonderful dancers: their Zumba is graceful and easy on the eyes. Josie, our instructor, is exacting and joyful. (That's Josie in the photo, not me.) My Zumba is, well, Stamberg’s verb works here, I "flounce."
As a scientist who has never studied dance or played team sports, I enjoy the mental exercise of teaching my body to do something physical. I mean something more involved than learning to work my computer mouse with my left hand. The analytical part of me gets a workout, too: I have to count steps in Zumba. But mostly, Zumba is fun. The analytical part of me hasn't figured out exactly why, but I believe it involves endorphins. Being part of a group of friends who are moving in time to music is good exercise and it makes me happy.
Josie teaches at the YMCA and Boise Community Education. I met her through one of her community ed classes and I now take the classes she teaches on her own. You can catch us at the Pat Harris School of Dance near Fairview and Cole on Monday and Wednesday mornings from 10 to 11 a.m. Enjoy your first class for free; subsequent classes are $5 each.
Come join us! I’ll be the one moving my lips while dancing.
Wednesday, June 6, 2012
My aunt, who I was staying with while I pulled weeds in the woods, had more information that evening. She said the coyotes had been leaving the woods and going over to the neighbors’ house. They shot the animals to keep them out of their yard. I remembered that dogs had barked at me from across the road when I popped out of the woods on that side. Once I knew about the neighbors’ dogs, I knew what the coyotes were eating. They weren’t finding it in our woods.
I understood what was happening in Indiana because I missed a question in a graduate student exam at the University of Arizona. One of my professors asked if coyotes on the east side of Tucson were eating plants--and animals that ate plants--that grew in winter or in summer.
His exact words were, "What’s the carbon isotope ratio of coyotes on the east side of Tucson?”
Isotopes are different versions of elements; carbon is one of the elements. All plants use carbon, from the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air, to make food and grow. Plants get CO2 through pores, or stomates, in their leaves. However, there’s a danger to opening these structures to let in CO2. Whenever their stomates are open, plants are also losing water through evaporation--the plants are drying out.
Plants that grow during Tucson’s hot summers use CO2 more efficiently than plants that grow during the cool winters. Summer plants are more efficient because they use more of each batch of CO2 they bring in, right down to the dregs. For plants, the dregs are CO2 molecules that contain the carbon isotope they don’t like as well.
This means that summer-growing plants use more of the less preferred isotope than winter-growing plants. When scientists compare the amounts of the two main isotopes of carbon, they can tell if an animal has been eating plants, or animals that ate plants, that grew in the winter or the summer.
When I answered the question, I guessed that the coyotes and their prey were eating whatever was in season. They both had to make do with what they could find among the tall saguaro cactus and shrubby triangle leaf bursage of the Sonoran Desert that surrounds Tucson.
What I didn’t know was that the Tucson coyotes were leaving the desert and coming into town--just as the Indiana coyotes had been leaving our woods and going to the neighbors’ place.
The professor said that the coyotes were eating summer plants all year. Make that one summer plant: corn. The coyotes were coming into town to clean up dog food left in back yard bowls. Most of the major dog food brands are mainly corn, so the coyotes were living on corn kibble.
Our Indiana neighbor's dog food bowl was a more reliable source of food than the few prey animals in our woods. And the dog food was a lot easier to sneak up on. I wondered if our neighbors knew they were helping the coyotes raise large litters of pups that would then follow their parents to dinner.
I emailed my mother about the coyotes in her woods and the corn kibble at the neighbors’ the next day. She understood the coyote issue because she had seen another example near where she lives. She emailed back that Edina, Minnesota had been "overrun by coyotes" a few of years earlier. "People saw them in the parks, and they attacked small pets," she wrote.
The city thought about trapping the coyotes, but Wile E. Coyote wasn’t just the figment of a cartoonist’s imagination: coyotes are wary and difficult to catch. The city’s legal department said no to killing coyotes in close proximity to taxpayers. Instead, the City of Edina launched an education campaign. Persuading people to stop feeding coyotes either intentionally, in order to watch the animals, or unintentionally, by leaving dog food out, was the safest and most effective way to deal with the problem.
Indiana and Minnesota aren’t the only places where coyotes and people don’t understand each other. The rural-urban interface expands and problems grow as more people bring their urban lives and expectations to rural and wild places. Coyotes are resourceful hunter-gathers. They soon learn that people mean food and poaching dog bowls is an easy living. The people don’t always catch on right away that they’re supporting the local coyote population.
Generations of humans have loved coyotes’ nighttime concerts. The performers are called “song dogs” in southern Arizona. But when people leave bowls of dog food out at night, they’re inviting the band over for an after party. Cutting off the coyotes’ supply of corn kibble is a more effective and more humane way to rescind the invitation than following them to their dens and shooting them.
Edina now encourages residents to haze coyotes.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
The driest 12 months in Texas history started in October, 2010. Less than half of the normal rain would fall across the state in the coming year and many cities would swelter in more than 100 days of triple digit temperatures. Gov. Rick Perry proclaimed three Days of Prayer for Rain at the end of April, 2011. I visited Texas that June.
The fires had started in West Texas in early April. Fort Davis residents still needed to tell me how the Rock House Fire had swept across 30 miles of open range to reach their town. Some houses were destroyed in minutes, while others nearby were untouched. The flames had caught and charred entire herds of cattle outside of town.
My camp room at the Stone Village cooled off enough that I could fall asleep shortly before dawn. The bathrooms, a few doors down, never fell below steamy. My room had been one of the carports for the motel rooms in the 1930s tourist lodge. Camp rooms with sweating guests alternated with motel rooms with droning air conditioners. I spent most of my time in Fort Davis in the shade or inside the air conditioned library.
The Fort Davis library building began life as a Mercantile in 1873. The wooden floor creaks under the embossed tin ceiling and one of the glass display cases still serves as the circulation desk. The front room is crammed with books and green arm chairs tucked into nooks. A narrow mezzanine overlooks the bookcases. (Justine Shaffner might spend even more time in libraries while traveling than I do. She also enjoyed the Fort Davis library).
I worked at one of the wooden tables in the cavernous back room, where the a/c wasn’t as icy. An earthen roof and large ceiling fans kept the room comfortable. Mrs. Spoon was selecting an armload of books. Her narrow Wranglers and pearl-snapped shirt suggested that she stayed in shape checking cattle and moving the irrigation water, but she was a retired school teacher.
The library was suspiciously quiet: most of the children in town were rehearsing The Princess and the Pea. The Missoula Children's Theatre had arrived on Monday, “with everything it takes to mount a full-scale musical production...except the cast.” Everyone got a part. Actors too young to remember lines or tunes played the dust bunnies under the princess's bed. I attended an afternoon performance--the school auditorium was air conditioned.
The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center was south of town through a landscape painted using only black, grey, and brown. I ventured out from the shade to hike through the native vegetation. While I recovered on the porch of the visitors' center I heard a few drops of rain hit the metal roof. When the individual drops refused to coalesce into rain, I realized I was listening to the metal expanding in the relentless heat.
I had hoped to visit Big Bend National Park next, but decided to reschedule when temperature dropped below 114 degrees. I headed north, over Wild Rose Pass, which had also burned in the Rock House Fire.
once, in Fort Stockton. Cubes lasted until I was out of the parking lot; the block lasted to the next town (200 miles).
The average rainfall increased as I drove east. There was enough moisture to support trees when I got to the Texas Hill Country. However, the drought was even worse here, as the eastern parts of the state had received an even smaller portion of their average rainfall. The map of precipitation departure from normal changed from tan to pink to dark red as I traveled east.
The Hill Country was hot and muggy, but cool enough to camp. I had bugged out of Balmorhea State Park a few nights earlier after paying for a campsite. I thought I’d wait for the temperature to drop and the convention-oven wind to die down before I set up my tent. When it was still 107 at 7 pm I went to a motel.
Lockhart State Park offers a 9-hole golf course, swimming pool, and a small campground with electricity, water, and room for RVs. I sprang for a $17 undeveloped campsite along the river, where I hoped to catch a breeze.
I stumbled out to put the fly over my mesh tent/sauna when thunder woke me after 11:00. After midnight, the rain hitting my tent seemed more solid than liquid. A lightning strobe flashed constantly. The National Weather Service later reported that nearly two inches of rain fell on Lockhart that night; 1.2 inches between 2 and 3 a.m.
The next morning I was delighted to see that I had pitched my tent on a high spot, which gave me a lovely view of the small stream running through the campground. I didn't have to pray for even one day to make it rain. I only had to set up my tent.
I was surprised the town of Lockhart didn't hold a parade for me and my drought-ending powers when I drove in the next morning. It looked like the sort of town that could organize one at the drop of a hat. The ornate Caldwell County courthouse is a Second Empire jewel built of sandstone in 1893. An octet of large flags snaps smartly overhead at one corner. Parked cars ring the town square in orderly ranks, rather than occupying a city block.
a source of curiosity to many professional architects."
has eased recently, but they haven’t solved their long term water problems. Texas is a dry state with a growing population, extensive agriculture, and water-hungry businesses. Governor Rick Perry will have many more opportunities to try to make it rain. Perhaps he'll try camping.
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