May 24, 2008

New Fisheries Conservation Magazine

Eddies: Reflections on Fisheries Conservation is a new magazine from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, available online or in print.

Click on the cover photo to get the current issue in PDF format.

May 23, 2008

"The Oil We Eat"

I met Dick Manning about ten years ago, and an excerpt from Richard Manning's Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie was a staple of my nature-writing classes. His article "The Oil We Eat" was published four years ago in Harper's. It follows some of the same paths as Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma A Natural History of Four Meals, making the case that simple judgments are more complicated than they look:

Animal rights aside, vegetarians can lose the edge in the energy argument by eating processed food, with its ten calories of fossil energy for every calorie of food energy produced. The question, then, is: Does eating processed food such as soy burger or soy milk cancel the energy benefits of vegetarianism, which is to say, can I eat my lamb chops in peace? Maybe. If I've done my due diligence, I will have found out that the particular lamb I am eating was both local and grass-fed, two factors that of course greatly reduce the embedded energy in a meal. I know of ranches here in Montana, for instance, where sheep eat native grass under closely controlled circumstances - no farming, no plows, no corn, no nitrogen. Assets have not been stripped. I can't eat the grass directly. This can go on. There are little niches like this in the system. Each person's individual charge is to find such niches.

May 22, 2008

Voodoo* Botany

My allergies -- mainly to tree pollen -- have been awful this spring. They were jump-started by a March trip to New Mexico, and then getting the flu in April probably did not help either.

An old friend suggested eating locally grown honey. Local honey is often touted as a preventative for hay fever, a sweeter way to desensitize your body than weekly shots. But I think that the suggestion rests on a misunderstanding of botany and a world view that, while appealing, does not always work out.

First, honey is made by bees that fly from flower to flower gathering nectar--and with it, pollen. They transfer the pollen to other flowers of the same species, and plant sex occurs. It is "heavy" pollen.

But the pollen that causes allergies is airborne. These trees -- junipers, elms, whatever -- are fertilized by the wind. (You never see a bee on a juniper tree.) They have "light" pollen. This lighter pollen does not end up in honey, except by accident, and presumably in lesser amounts than the pollen from plants visited by bees.

The idea that local honey prevents hay fever represents, I think, the world view of the 15th-17th centuries, an era when a scientific attitude was not incompatible with a view of the cosmos as harmonious and meaningful to humans. Think of Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton casting astrological horoscopes.

Think of the old herbalists' "doctrine of signatures," the idea that you could tell by looking at a plant what disease it would treat. That doctrine was based on a belief in a meaningful universe with humanity at its center.

At least honey is still good for a sore throat and cough, if they are not too severe.

*I use "voodoo" in the sense that George H.W. Bush used it in referring to supply-side economics, not as a reference to the religion.

Blog Stew with Donkey

Men's Health magazine rates Colorado Springs tops for dogs. But the city's two animal shelters are are often snarling at each other.

¶ My neighbor Hal Walter supports Mordecai as official Democratic convention donkey.

¶ After a mountain lion was killed in Chicago, questions remain about a "cougar cover-up."

May 19, 2008

Things Black Bears Like

We have several of these gopher-deterring gadgets in the vegetable garden and flower beds, hoping to deter the pocket gophers. (The jury is still not in on whether they work as advertised.)

I came outside this morning and found one of them plucked from the ground and inverted, spike pointing into the air.

There were largish circular impressions -- about six inches across -- in the soil next to it.

Curious bear, I think. It must have heard the high-pitched moans that the "moler" makes and come to investigate, in the way that bears investigate something--by swatting it.

May 18, 2008

Putting the Client on the Game

Walking down the driveway to the guest house with an armload of paper towels, etc., I saw a stranger trudging up from the county road.

Unlike the two Jehovah's Witnesses who showed up yesterday--and they drove--he carried no well-worn Bible but binoculars and a camera mounting a huge, camouflage-patterned telephoto lens--obviously a Serious Wildlife Photographer. Sunburned, with a north-of-England accent.

It turned out to be birding writer Richard Crossley, needing photos of band-tailed pigeons for a new book. And he had been told that this was the area to visit--and then a neighbor had told him that we were the bird experts, which we aren't really, unless doing Project Feeder Watch contributes some degree of expertise.

RIGHT: Momentarily frustrated in his quest for band-tailed pigeons, author and wildlife photographer Richard Crossley contents himself with shooting feeder birds.

M. and I fell instantly into hunting-guide mode, saying what guides so often say: "Well, they were here yesterday, bunches of them. They ought to be around."

We sent him up an overgrown old road in one direction. No pigeons. Then M. spotted one on a telephone wire, but by the time Crossley had circled around toward it (to get the right angle of sunlight) it had flown.

"Maybe late afternoon would be better," we suggested. Crossley contented himself with shooting photos of the feeder birds: black-headed grosbeaks, pine siskins, Cassin's finches.

Then she decided to take the dogs down to the creek for a cooling swim and ... no, it was more mythic than that:

A native woman, trailed by a pack of large and unkempt dogs, called from further down the forest path. "There," she said in her musical tongue. "Pigeons! That tree!"

Half a dozen band-tailed pigeons sat at the top of a dead ponderosa pine. Crossley grabbed his tripod and began moving uphill toward them, pausing, shooting, stalking.

And I hope that he got what he needed for his project.

May 17, 2008

Polygamy -- It's Everywhere!

The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints are just up the road, apparently. Much excitement in the southern Colorado news media.

And in the Black Hills.

You could organize your summer vacation around these people: Start in Texas before it gets too hot, then hit Colorado City, Utah, on to Colorado (Mancos, Westcliffe) and the Black Hills, and finish at Bountiful, British Columbia.

Better hurry, though. The recent California court decision permitting same-sex marriage has some legal scholars saying, "Why not polygamy too?"

Sure, run human society like a herd of elk. It works for elk.

But young bull elk get a shot at dethroning the herd bull. Male teens from these polygamist colonies often end up homeless, panhandling on street corners.

May 15, 2008

The Pigeon Mob

Band-tailed Pigeons mob the bird feeder. Photo by Chas S. Clifton

Band-tailed pigeons are back, and they have discovered the sunflower-seed feeder.

Another Fantasy Shot Down

A missing-person case last fall in Fremont County really got under my skin. I wanted to volunteer for the search, but of course I had college classes to teach. (There are no substitute teachers at a university.)

Knowing that I would be leaving the university this spring, I decided that as soon as I was free of that responsibility, I would volunteer for the Custer County Search & Rescue. Doing so would have several benefits:

• Giving back to the community

• Meeting other outdoor-oriented people

• An incentive to stay in shape by hiking, mountain biking, etc.

• And, very likely, having some experiences worth blogging about.

Well, no.

I called the S&R number and left a message. Yesterday, while I was at the vet's office with Jack (bladder infection), someone called me back, leaving a message on the answering machine:

"We have a full complement of volunteers."

That sounds too much like, "Don't you call us, we'll call you." Why do I feel like I've been rejected by the cool kids? (Does anyone ever outgrow high school?)

So evidently I won't be the one finding the lost mushroom picker or Alzheimer's patient.

May 13, 2008

Tanagers and Gnatcatchers

It's the time of year when we see Western tanagers on their way to higher altitudes: SeEtta Moss photographed one.

I always describe them as looking like a flying tequila sunrise. Here is a picture--you decide.

M. and I spotted a new bird for us on the 10th, the blue-gray gnatcatcher. Several males seemed to be having a territorial dispute on a slope covered with Gambel oak. I suggested that they could use the Forest Service road as a boundary between oakbrush patches, but they weren't listening to me.

The Deer Mouse Surge

Almost every fall I face an attempted migration by deer mice (Peromyscus) into the garage, which connects with the basement and thus the rest of the house.

I don't like them in the house because of (a) the hantavirus risk and (b) the annoyance of hearing mice in the walls when I am trying to go to sleep.

The cats used to take care of any mice who made it into the main house, but M. and I are currently cat-less. And the basement does not connect directly with the upstairs.

So I lay traps. But this year, the traps are catching mice in May. Perhaps connected with this mouse surge, M. and I have seen several dead mice, unmarked by predators, lying around near our house and the guest cabin.

Some quick Web research leads me to think that while the deer mouse population fluctuates in the course of the year, peaking in late summer into fall, year-to-year cycles are not so variable. Other sites, however, suggest a connection to the mast crop--we live surrounded by oak brush, and the number of acorns produced last year was at least average.

Maybe the number of foxes we are seeing around the house is connected to the mice, since they are a major predator. But it could also be because the foxes (at least the red foxes) have gotten used to scavenging sunflower seeds under the bird feeders.

It's a mouse-tery to me.

May 12, 2008

Mosin-Nagant, the People's Arm

My English department colleague Professor S. has acquired a Mosin-Nagant rifle, one of jillions that came off the Tula assembly line in 1943 during the Great Patriotic War.

They are solid and accurate rifles, still inexpensive in the basic infantry model, and you can buy lots of Warsaw Pact-era cartridges cheaply too.

Prof. S. leaves the bayonet on. It dampens barrel harmonics, he says. And we know that Colonel Mosin, czarist class enemy that he undoubtedly was, intended it that way.

Ah yes, the Mosin-Nagant influences the shooter's language.

Before long, we were vowing death to Bahktinist deviationists and swearing that we would liberate literary study from criminal left-social constructionists.

(The rifle on the right, however, is a 1903 Springfield, made in 1918, another busy year.)

May 10, 2008

You Say Binocular...

I say binoculars, but Tom McIntyre's The Field & Stream Hunting Optics Handbook actually covers shooting glasses, rifle and telescopes, binoculars, and rangefinders. And flashlights.

Before turning to binoculars, however, McIntyre devotes chapters to the eye itself and to shooting and prescription eyeglasses for the hunter ("You need protective [lenses]—think hunting with Dick Cheney.")

The Hunting Optics Handbook is moderately technical. You need to know some formulas to compare the "twilight factor" of two different spotting scopes you are comparing, for example — how well they work under low-light conditions.

But along with the useful, contemporary information, McIntyre packs in a lot of history (of lenses, iron rifle sights, and marksmanship), and that history makes this book something more than a technical treatise.

He suggests, for instance, that General Custer's bad day on the Little Bighorn in June 1876 might have been partially due to his "low-powered, undoubtedly high-dispersion-lens field glasses."

After trying to study the terrain through the mid-morning heat shimmer, Custer allegedly turned to scout Mitch Bouyer and said, "My eyes are as good as yours, and I don't see any Indians."

Supposedly the same glasses turned up on one of the Lakota corpses at Wounded Knee a generation later.

Since serious purchases of spotting scopes, etc., can run well into three figures--or more--doesn't it make sense to spend $15 and a few hours educating yourself first? And then keep The Field & Stream Hunting Optics Handbook on the bookshelf the pleasure of reading about a medieval pope's eyeglasses or Hiram Berdan's sharpshooters.

Blog Stew When Boondocking

¶ From my sister, the trailering snowbird, a site listing free campgrounds for RV-ers. Lots of Wal-Marts, naturally, but also national forest sites, city parks, etc. -- and in New Mexico, tribal casino parking lots.

¶ Ever since the dramatic gasoline price jump of the early 1970s ("Oh my god, 50 cents a gallon!!") some people have been arguing that full-time RV living, even in that Winnebago that gets 7 mpg, is actually cheaper and "greener" than living in a regular house, when you work out all the costs. And now you got the trendiness of running your motor home on used cooking oil. (How long until there is a shortage of that commodity?)

¶ Got an urge to fish with old wet-fly patterns, horsehair lines, and gut leaders? These people can help. Tweed jacket optional.

¶ Instructions for Plains-style sign language, from an online site for "traditional" Scouting -- in other words, the kind your grandfather might have experienced. Old school. Their slogan: "Dead Bugs, Blow Guns, Sharp Knives, & Snakes: What More Could A Boy Want?"

¶ I, too, have stopped to photograph the works of M.T. Liggett of Mullinville, Kansas. He keeps adding to them.

May 08, 2008

19th-Century Climbing, Disney-Style

Climb until you hear the angelic chorus, then bear left and look for the secret route up the chimney.

Many years ago, probably at a drive-in theatre in Rapid City, S.D., my cinematic introduction to mountaineering came in the form of a Disney movie, Third Man on the Mountain.

It starred James MacArthur, who was Disney's go-to actor for juvenile leads for a few years circa 1960. Here he is Rudi, an 18-year-old dishwasher, son of a famous (but dead) Swiss guide. Does he have the right stuff to be a famous guide like Papa (cue angelic chorus)?

But Captain Winter, the English adventurer (perhaps based on Edward Whymper) believes in him and wants him along on the Englishman's attempt to climb "The Citadel" (i.e., the Matterhorn).

Peculiar recently linked to a video of old-school mountaineering. Hah! If we assume that Third Man is set in the 1860s (Disney?? accurate???), then these guys would give a Patagonia marketing manager heart failure.

Aside from their hobnailed boots, they have no equipment to speak of, not so much as a piton. Just hemp rope (which is always getting dragged over sharp rock edges) and big ol' ice axes that look like pulaskis.

They climb in street clothes--tweed jackets--and Capt. Winter always wears his necktie because he is (a) the client and (b) an English gentleman.

Yet because it's a movie, the whole way up the Citadel/Matterhorn consists of maximum-exposure ledges, cracks, chimneys, and overhangs with a merciful arête at the end. All hail the stunt men in their hobnailed boots.

But as a 9-year-old I was mightily impressed. Of course, I didn't know the movie was based on a novel by James Ramsey Ullman, Banner in the Sky. Later, as a college student in the 1970s, I read another of Ullman's mountaineering novels, probably The White Tower. I was so impressed that I wanted to write to him in care of his publisher -- only to learn before I sent the letter that he had died in 1971.

May 06, 2008

Making Money off Migrating Birds

All through southern Colorado, groups and landowners are figuring how to make money off of migrating birds--or off the people who want to view them.

For instance, you can go down to Las Animas on May 17 and be "Bent on Birding." (Note to British readers: "bent" in this case does not mean that they cheat on their life lists. Nor is it a reference to sexual preference.)

Around Mancos and the Ute Mountain Reservations, an elaborate program is planned, starting tomorrow.

Other trips are planned to remote ranches for viewing hepatic tanagers and other migrants. Because of the distances involved (for humans), food and lodging are provided. Here's a typical listing, courtesy of the Colorado Division of Wildlife's events and festivals page:

Field Trip to Kim Area Ranches for Hepatic Tanagers, May 31-June 1. Limited to 12 participants. $90 per person includes one night lodging and dinner. This trip will visit area private ranches to search for nesting Hepatic Tanagers and other breeding species near the New Mexico and Oklahoma borders. Contact: Nathan Pieplow at

For general Colorado birding information, visit the Colorado Birding Trail site, which also has a calendar page.

May 01, 2008

Teaching Nature Writing - Part 3

The nature-writing class had its final exam today (i.e., turned in portfolios) at the Cactus Flower, a Pueblo restaurant whose main recommendation is its large dining room -- no waiting. (Seriously, the red chile sauce is good if you order the "hot" strength. Almost New Mexico quality.)

The students -- who have been blogging here -- gave me a homemade farewell card. Thanks, guys, now you have me feeling all Mr. Chips-ish. But I am still going to grade the portfolios as I would have done sans card.

And then on to new adventures.