Monday, June 25, 2012

I Live in a Smile

My essay on the Snake River Plain appears on Orion Magazine's The Place Where You Live page. Map of Idaho, courtesy Idaho State University Dept. of Geosciences.
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

Susan Stamberg and I

Susan admits that she’s in a 20 year-long rut. I admit that I love the endorphins.

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 ® to Zumba.

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

Coyotes, Carbon, and Corn

The neighbors across the road said they had killed almost a dozen coyotes in our woods. I wondered what the animals were eating in our 18 acres of Indiana maple and beech. Coyotes’ sharp noses and antennae ears help them catch critters that we can’t hear or see, but there couldn’t be much for them to eat in our small woods.

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

Governor Rick Perry and Me

The governor and I each have a plan to end the Texas drought. The data indicate that my plan is more effective.

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.

I sprinted between the air conditioned car and air conditioned Motel 6s as I crossed Texas. And I bought ice for the cooler. I found block ice 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.

Ants, earwigs, spiders, and one juvenile cockroach had been delighted to find a place to escape the rising water. My tent was a sagging, sodden, muddy mess infested with invertebrates. The cockroach had been badly traumatized by the rain, which he'd never seen before. He suffered flashbacks when I struggled to rinse the tent off under a spigot, while keeping it out of the mud. The roach tried to crawl up my leg after I forced him to abandon the 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.

Nearby, the library is in a Classical Revival building that I mistakenly took to be remodeled church. The city describes the building as "a source of curiosity to many professional architects."

The Texas drought 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.