March 26, 2006


Last Tuesday, March 21, following on the heels of a snow storm, I drove east on US 34 from Greeley towards Wray, Colorado--perhaps the prettiest of the High Plains towns, in its almost-hidden valley along the North Fork of the Republican River--then jogged south to US 36 and east into Kansas via St. Francis.

The fields on either side of the road were covered with snow, and snow lay right up to the edges of the paved road. Passerine birds clustered along the roadway: meadow larks and smaller birds (horned larks? longspurs?). Harriers cruised low over the fields, and at one point I saw one flying off with a small bird. An occasional cock pheasant stood near the road.

Traffic was light. Every time I encountered one of these flocks, the birds swirled into the air. Usually, they cleared the car or were swept into the slipstream, up and over. But I hit at least three, which sickened me. I thought of stopping to see what kinds of birds they were, but because of the snow (and the mud under the snow) pulling off the road seemed doubtful. I was less concerned with being a field naturalist than with Keeping Going like a good 21st-century mechanized man.

Finally, one bird hit the base of the windshield in a splatter of blood and small bones. I almost retched, quickly wondering what to do. I let the machine take care of its death: I flipped it away with the wiper and turned on the windshield washer until the smear of blood was gone. And I kept hurrying on towards dusk and Phillipsburg, where I stopped for the night.

I see road-killed rabbits and other small animals all the time; they bother me, but not so much as birds. (But this writer's compassion moves me.)

But then again I was coming down I-35 toward Emporia on Saturday morning, somewhere after crossing the Marais des Cygnes River (how do you say that in Kansan?) when I saw an irregular red streak down the center of the right-hand lane. It went on and on, gradually diminishing, but then reappearing. Finally, after five miles or so, it stopped. The road surface was grooved concrete—durable, but it makes for louder tire noise. Sometimes when there would be a rough spot, I would see the red streak again.

Probably what happened was this: a trucker hit a deer at night. Maybe he thought the battered body had been knocked to the side of the road. The deer certainly wouldn’t survive meeting the front bumper of an eighteen-wheeler at 65 mph. But its body jammed underneath the Peterbilt or Freightliner somehow, like a big bloody paintbrush. Then, occasionally, the jar of hitting a rough patch would shake it back into contact with the road, what was left of it. The trucker would not have heard or felt anything up in the cab. The only question was whether the carcass eventually fell free or whether he found it the next time that he checked his tires.

What happens when kids go outdoors

They grow up to care about the environment, maybe.

"Although domesticated nature activities -- caring for plants and gardens -- also have a positive relationship to adult environment attitudes, their effects aren't as strong as participating in such wild nature activities as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing and hunting," said environmental psychologist Nancy Wells, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.

I saw this study referenced on a listserv a couple of weeks ago and wanted to blog it, but I had too much else going on. Jonathan Hanson did blog it and commented appropriately.

Interestingly, when I went Googling the Cornell University web site, looking for it, using the keywords "children outdoors," what I found was quite the opposite. You would think that the outdoors is such a dangerous place that kids should be chained the television. There were articles about Lyme disease, of course, and about asthma and skin cancer. Plus heat stroke, poisonings, hypothermia, and pesticides. The outdoors is clearly way too scary for kids.

On a related note, I served as a judge this month for the local History Day competition (link goes to CU-Boulder), where students from area schools prepare individual and group presentations (4th graders doing PowerPoint--with adult help--is that good?).

In the "senior group" category, we gave the prize to three guys who had put together a tri-fold poster exhibit, plus bibligraphy and "process paper" as specified, on the Ludlow Massacre, a major event in Colorado labor history.

In discussing their work, I discovered that none of them had actually visited the site to walk the ground and to think that the miners' tents were here, the militia's machine guns up there, and so on.

It's only a bit more than an hour south of Pueblo. Surely one of them had a car. Saturday road trip, anybody?

"Remember," I said, "the ground is a primary source. Your feet are a primary source."

I hope they remember that. Or they can just look at Web sites.

March 20, 2006

Another blow to the "eco-Indian"

The article has a bit of an agri-business bias, but, on the other hand, the archaeological record is there.

When the first white pioneers settled California in the early 1800s, they found the San Francisco Bay area teeming with geese, ducks, shore birds, deer and elk. One early settler said “The wild geese and every species of water fowl darkened the surface of every bay…in flocks of millions.”


A painstaking California archeologist has now blown the Indian conservation legend into tiny fragments. Over seven years, he analyzed 5,700 bird bones from a huge Indian shell/waste mound on the shores of San Francisco Bay. The bones laid out a 1900-year history of the Indians’ bird hunting. They’d hunted dozens of wild bird species to local extinction, starting with the biggest geese and working their way clear down to tiny sandpipers.

To be fair, the "Indian conservation legend" is a co-creation of white conservationists and their Indian interlocutors looking to grab a bit of the moral high ground. This particular piece of noble savagery starts where? With Charles Eastman?

Knowing that our culture is not exactly living in ecological harmony, we want to believe that there is somewhere, a culture that does, or did.

If we see the flaws in that belief, do we lose all hope?

March 19, 2006

Crossing Kansas

Family business has cut into my blogging time--now the university's spring break is here, and I am giving up mine for a trip east to Missouri to look over some rental properties that I (in theory--as a trustee) manage, and to meet with the real-estate broker, the lawyer, the accountant, and on and on.

Merrill Gilfillan writes in Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains (1988):

Crossing Kansas in any direction, even for the fifteenth time, is oceanic enough an undertaking to rouse the adrenalin. There are good crossings and bad, wild and dull ones. Crossings with weather and without. There is U.S. 36, a great one, and 50, an overworked one, and 83 and 37 and 96 and little Kansas 4 squeaking through, and 160, the Oklahoma-flavored passage. They take you through villages with chunks of the late 1940s suspended intact, stowed for safekeeping: ghost hotels, ranks of green and white elfin tourist cottages gone to seed, and tiny ex-chili parlors and pool halls abandoned on weed-choked corners.

And since I plan to detour to Greeley, Colorado, to visit an old friend, U.S. 36 was what I had in mind, but of course it's the equinox, and that means "crossings with weather."

A middle-size spring snowstorm seems to be moving in on us.

I have compulsively checked the boat Jeep: water, sleeping bag, MREs (military rations), cell phone. "No big hurry," that's the mantra. The first appointment is not until Thursday.

March 14, 2006

Ways of walking

Thinking of backpacking this summer? Sherpas are the best at carrying loads. But wasn't that technique of pack basket and tump line also used by Eastern Woodland Indians and the white fur-trappers who emulated them?

Or you could give up on the whole walking-upright thing (video here). In that case, how do you manage when your pelvis is aligned for upright walking?

(T-staff wave to Rebecca Blood.)

March 12, 2006

Dialog: Going to the laundromat

Maria: Let's just go out to breakfast and let the servants do the laundry.

Carlo: But they don't have opposable thumbs. They can't put quarters in the washing machine.

Maria: Then why did we hire them?

Carlo: To protect us from giant hyenas.

March 06, 2006

Looking for snow

RIGHT: What's wrong with this picture?

Not wanting to drive all the way to the Leadville area, M. and I opted to take the dogs skiing part-way up Monarch Pass. There was plenty of snow at Monarch Park, but its surface was a mixture of water and ice. Not exactly a primo experience.

Sometimes you can ski up the Forest Service road at Fooses Creek, lower down the pass, but as this photo shows, that was not an option today.

Blame La Niña. Again, we are in Dread mode. Dread of drought, as in 2002, the Year of No Grass. Dread of fire, as in 2002 and last year. One big spring blizzard sure would be nice.

The Pueblo Chieftain summarizes the bad news:

The dry conditions--already labeled a moderate drought by the U.S. Drought Monitor--mean increased fire danger, grazing cutbacks and possible water restrictions for cities in southern Pueblo, Custer, Huerfano and Las Animas counties.

The best indicator is snowpack, which is greater than 100 percent of average for the state, but only 10 to 35 percent at measurement sites in the southern mountains. The moisture content of the snow is also low.

All that is saving the Arkansas Basin is that the headwaters around Leadville have gotten a good amount of snow. The South Arkansas drainage, off Monarch Pass, looks bad, as does the Sangre de Cristo Range, which feeds Texas Creek and Grape Creek, plus the Huerfano River.

But there's lots of snow in Aspen, and Denver has no water restrictions, so life is wonderful, no?

Dog days in the New West

From Andrew Sullivan comes this listserv exchange involving a New Mexico woman (new trophy-home owner?) whose dogs have discovered an elk carcass and wish to take up residence in it.

From the dogs' point of view, it's the Second Coming, the arrival of "cargo," or any religious metaphor you choose.

CoseyMo - 02:15 pm PDT - Sep 9, 1999 - What if you stand the ribcage on end, wait for them to look out, grab them when they do and pull?

Anne V - 02:18 pm PDT - Sep 9, 1999 - They wedge their toes between the ribs. And scream. We tried that before we brought the elk home from the mountain with dogs inside. Jake nearly took my friend's arm off. He's already short a toe, so he cherishes the 15 that remain.

March 05, 2006

Animals moving around

From the Cañon City Record in 1906:

Some weeks ago, W.A. Stump noticed coon tracks on his ranch at Four Mile. Never having seen a coon in Colorado, he was at a loss to account for the tracks. He did not think it was a coon and was quite curious to know what was making the marks of the Missouri quadruped.

("Missouri quadruped." I just love the slightly tongue-in-cheek, pseudo-elevated tone of the old newspaper writing.)

From the Colorado Division of Wildlife, "Probable wolf sighting along Colorado-Wyoming border," March 3, 2006

Though a majority of the sightings are coyotes, dogs, or other animals, a recent report in north-central Colorado's North Park area appears to have some merit.

On Feb. 16, district wildlife managers with the DOW were able to capture brief video of a suspected wolf. The DOW was able to observe the animal because a landowner quickly reported seeing it about 10 miles south of the Colorado-Wyoming border north of the community of Walden. Biologists and wolf specialists who have examined the video say the animal seen on tape looks and behaves like a wolf. . . .

The animal on the video tape had no visible tags or collars. Such indicators could more easily link the animal to federal efforts to reintroduce the northern gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Many offspring wolves lack any markings, but so do wolf-dog hybrids that could also be in the wild.

A different sort of language: "suspected wolf." That reminds me of cop-speak: "The suspect exited the building" (heard on the KRDO-TV news two nights ago) versus "The guy ran out the door." Instead of a humorous high style, we have the dispassionate, objectifying language of bureaucracy.

As a reporter and outdoor columnist for the Cañon City Daily Record myself (1987-1990), would I have felt obliged to write "the alleged wolf"?

March 02, 2006

How to stop a dog from barking

C.W. Fisher offers (or swipes from a book author) some advice on how to stop a dog from barking.

It's good advice, from someone who knows the truth about doggy nature:

A pack of dogs is not the same as a dog or two. There's always a top dog, and the more dogs they top, the more power they have. They can say therefore: "We're pooping in the bathroom now!" Or "It's the smelly cat girl! Kill her!" or "Either move your ass or get off the goddam bed."

And then the commenters get started. Talk about pack behavior!