May 31, 2005

Darkness at Noon

Britons feud over sudden shade in the back garden. Now there is a campaign against problem hedges. Bureaucrats become involved.

The villain is a cross between the Monterrey and Nootka cypresses, both native to the West Coast of North America. In this case, "hybrid vigor" has produced a fast-growing tree that is peddled for people who want instant hedges.

I don't consider myself to be a "native-plant Nazi," but the temptation is to say, "See, this is what happens when you bring in something and plant it everywhere."

Kudzu, anyone? Tamarisk? Russian olive?

I was raised with the doctrine myself: plant trees, beautify your property. Shelterbelts save on heating and cooling bills. Etc. Dad and I planted rows of Siberian ("Chinese") elms and even some Russian olives.

Lilacs, too. It's hard to hate lilacs.

But really, you are better off sticking with natives. Chances are that birds and beneficial insects will appreciate your choice.

May 29, 2005

Monkey see, monkey new

This summer's theme seems to be "new species." This one is a monkey. (New York Times registration required.)

Planting and killing trees

I planted a tree this week, the first one in years. It's not that I don't know how: my parents started me young on landscaping grunt work. Or give me a hoedad and a burlap bag of bare-root seedlings, and I know what to do. But here in the forested foothills, my usual job is to be "mechanical fire"--thinning and pruning the pines, junipers, and Gambel oaks so that a forest fire does not do the job all in one hot and windy afternoon.

It was a little hackberry from Blossoms, a nursery in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. M. has been agitating to try more berry species that can can survive our violent springs.

I grew up thinking of hackberries as good drought-resistant shelter-belt trees, with the berries a bonus for the birds. But they are edible, in the sense that chokecherries (which grow here already) are.

The Eastern forests, meanwhile, lost a huge source of timber and of food for wildlife when the American chestnuts died, but the American Chestnut Foundation thinks it has turned the corner on bringing them back.

Likewise, things are looking better for American elms.

And speaking of elms, here is a poignant story about a gardener and her tree.
Man bites dog

When I was a newspaper reporter, that imginary headline was newsroom shorthand for any item that ran counter to conventional expectations, such as this BBC story.

Although the Confederation of British Industry has lobbied against CO2 emissions cuts with the usual argument that they would "hurt business," a another group of corporate leaders has asked the government to put those very policies in place, so that they can invest accordingly.

But in their letter the business leaders say they believe emissions cuts of 60% can be achieved in the UK without damaging competitiveness if firms use energy more wisely and harness new technology.

They believe measures to hold CO2 emissions to a safe level would reduce economic growth by no more than 2% by 2050.

They say bold policy action could actually boost Britain's profits by making the UK a world leader in low carbon technology.

By saying "please regulate us," they are keeping the playing field level. No one would have feel that they were giving up a competitive advantage by reducing emissions, and they could plan ahead now instead of being clobbered later by some emergency measures.

May 26, 2005

Girls becoming like men, and other side effects

A legacy of the early 19th-century Romantic movement is the idea that wilderness is good for you, that contemplating "sublime" landscapes will make you morally a better person.

In practice, that believe has spawned wilderness camps for "troubled" teenagers. "63 Days" is a sort of reconstructed blog by a writer who says she was "kidnapped from her bed" at age 15 and sent to Challenger, a camp in southern Utah. (Utah has the market cornered in wilderness rehabilitation: rigid Mormon values plus lots of public land.)

Sometimes on rests, the girls would sit together talking about how they wanted to make traps to kill mice and eat them. They’d sit perched on rocks, knees apart, elbows leaning on them. They were becoming almost like men.

It's a long, absorbing read.

(Thanks to Zero Boss.)

May 25, 2005

Recreational flows

The commercial whitewater businesses in the Upper Arkansas Valley are lobbying for more water..

They want more water released from higher reservoirs for better rafting and kayaking, whether that timetable suits downstream users (towns, farmers) or not--and of course whether it's good for the aquatic environment, insect hatches, fish spawning, etc. or not. (But I do see that Salida's activist TU-ers are supporting this request.)

Jerry Mallett, quoted in the article, is a veteran mouthpiece for commercial rafting (known to anglers as "the rubber hatch").

Once when I was a reporter for the Cañon City Daily Record, I did a story on that year's boating fatalities--there are always several.

The next day, Mallett was on the telephone. Reporting on deaths would scare away customers, he whined on behalf of the outfitters' association.

I pointed out that his clients all had names like "Whitewater Adventure Outfitters," "Adventure Quest," and so on. And all the others had "Expeditions" in their names.

Obviously, a half-day float trip paralleling U.S. 50 with a bus ride at the end hardly qualified as an "expedition." Surely that was false advertising.

And if there was no risk of death, injury, or arrest, how could you possibly call it an "adventure"?

He hung up. And now he is a county commissioner.

May 19, 2005

Water comes first

Almost every day, the Pueblo Chieftain carries articles on the maneuverings over southern Colorado water.

At base is the fact that Colorado Springs, as I mentioned before, was built at the intersection of two small creeks with no good water source. The city utilities department is always trying to find ways to route more and more of the Arkansas River through the city, through existing or proposed pipelines, at the expense of smaller towns and the lower Arkansas Valley's farms. Since those towns and farms are in the Chieftain's circulation area--its catch basin, to keep the water metaphor going--the Chieftain's has been taking a hard line against Colorado Springs' designs.

It's a boring newspaper in many respects, but it does have the best water-reporting in the state.

Meanwhile, I watch similar dramas on a micro rather than macro level. Last week I met some new neighbors, who bought a house that shares a well with our cabin (and two other houses, one unoccupied).

Considering that they moved here from Durango, I was astonished to learn that they had no idea that they were buying a house with a shared well—and a miserable, shallow well prone to running dry in drought years at that!

The first rule of country living, I thought, was "Check the well" (and the septic system). Then think about the house.

Our postmistress also sells real estate. (Talk about knowing everything about everybody!) She topped me with a story about showing a home to a potential buyer who asked who the water company was. (It's a well.) And who the gas company was. (You pay for propane.) Eventually she suggested that to the client that perhaps this area required a little more self-reliance than they were prepared for.

The smart guy is the neighbor who plows people's access roads in the winter and then hauls water in the summer. There is the ideal home business.

May 14, 2005

I have to go water a lily

Put away that fish emulsion, says gardening writer Carol Steinfeld. Valuable, nitrogen-rich fertilizer is as close as your bladder.

Every day, we urinate nutrients that can fertilize plants that could be used for beautiful landscapes, food, fuel, and fiber. Instead, these nutrients are flushed away, either to be treated at high cost or discharged to waters where they overfertilize and choke off aquatic life.

Information about her book, Liquid Gold and photos of urine-fertilized gardens are on her website.

May 13, 2005

The mysterious kha-nyou

A fox in Borneo, a large rat-like mammal in Laos.

Less good: an invasive wood wasp with a taste for pine trees.
Chas suggested I enter Natureblog with the wonderful news of a new mammal-- a carnivore at that!-- discovered in Borneo. If a completely "new" mammal hides in Borneo, why not a fisher of similar size returning to Colorado?

But meanwhile another naturalist friend sent me an article by Bradford McKee in April 28 NYT that suggests we are losing interest in such things as a culture. Even Scouts, it seems, prefer video games to yucky boring nature, and as parents we have become such weenies we don't allow our kids privacy, free time, or to be alone in the woods. I was made a writer and naturalist by books and long summer hours in the New England woods-- I can't imagine a childhood without the equivalent.

McKee says: "The risk part, assuming that children do just want to wander or waste time outdoors, is perhaps never low enough for parents.

"Tom Cara, 47, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Niles, Ill., said that he and his wife, Erin, take their son, 10, and daughter, 14, on bike trips and that he and his son, in particular, go camping and fishing in the Wisconsin wilderness. But it's hard to let children roam too freely, he said, because the news media have spooked parents with reports of child abductions and murders. "We've been conditioned to live in fear," he said."

Does anyone else find this pathetic? As parents, I'm proud to say, Libby and I encouraged Jackson to roam the woods and fields in New Mexico and Montana. He turned out to be a scholar, a river guide, and a conservationist. We need more like him. Who else will find, record, study, and save the foxes and fishers?

May 08, 2005

Cryptozoology for fun and profit

M.'s possible fisher sighting produced diverse reactions.

Naturalist-writer friend #1 thought that it was perfectly possible, that the "experts" don't always know what's out there.

Naturalist-writer friend #2 said no, there are absolutely no fishers in Colorado, and it had to have been a pine marten, a really really big one. (And the habitat would be right for a pine marten, too.)

Emotionally, I wish that #1 was right. After all, before 1990 there were officially no Mexican spotted owls in this part of Colorado, although perhaps a few dedicated birders knew otherwise. Then a lawsuit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service forced the government to conduct a census. The local Bureau of Land Management office hired us--we spent five summers looking for spotted owls, and we found several breeding pairs and individuals. The population is not large, but it is here.

And there were no grizzly bears left in Colorado until Ed Wiseman killed an elderly sow griz in 1979 in the Southern San Juan Mountains. There are still officially no grizzly bears, but it is illegal to kill one.

On the other hand, #2 is a guy who practically lives in the woods and certainly knows his Colorado pine martens.

So we're left with a little mystery.

Of course, if you want real mystery beasts, you can't beat Wisconsin, which has werewolves. Reporter Linda S. Godfrey has two books out on the topic.

Wisconsin may be "a key 'window area' with many portals from other dimensions," as Godfrey said in a recent Fate magazine interview, but we have the San Luis Valley, in the next county west of here.

May 07, 2005

No reliable sightings

I came home on Thursday to find M. with all of our wildlife guidebooks spread out on the sofa.

She had been walking the dogs on the San Isabel National Forest right near the house, when they started running up the dirt road after what she thought was a smaller dog. It and they went off into the underbrush, then it ran back across the road not 10 feet from her and up into the thick forest of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

Then the dogs came after it, lost the scent, milled around, and she caught and leashed them and brought them home.

The mystery beast was larger than a house cat, looked like a weasel with a long, bushy tail, and was reddish brown all over. It was not a raccoon, a badger, a ringtail, a marmot, or a porcupine.

All we can think is that it was a fisher, Martes pennati, one of the larger members of the weasel family. The road surface was sun-dried clay, so there were no good tracks.

According to a paper online at the Predator Conservation Alliance site, there have been no reliable sightings of fishers in Colorado for decades.

A natural history museum site shows no fishers in Colorado either.

Actually, I think I saw one in the late 1980s while elk hunting higher up in the Wet Mountains, at about 11,000 feet in a fir forest.

But from our days as wildlife contractors for the Bureau of Land Management, we know that a "reliable sighting" is one by a PhD biologist accompanied by one or two graduate students.

"Who says that living in the woods is boring?" asks M.

May 05, 2005

Dollars versus Jesus

Jeff Sharlet's May 2005 Harper's feature article about Rev. Ted Haggard and New Life Church, with its disparaging comments and quotes about downtown Colorado Springs, has riled the economic development establishment there.

The words stung Terry Sullivan and Beth Kosley, who make their livings selling the city to tourists and companies looking to open offices, restaurants, shops and factories.

Kosley, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, which promotes downtown, reeled off reasons [why] downtown is not "withering into irrelevance."

Columnist Cara DeGette notes the departure of the economic-development honcho who oversaw the business community's wooing of Protestant para-church "ministries" in the 1990s, which followed its wooing of high-tech firms (1970s) and the military (1940s-60s).

It's all built on illusion. Look at a map. Colorado Springs is the only major city that I know of that is not sited on a lake or river, but rather at the junction of two small creeks. Watching it try to grab water away from other parts of the state has kept three generations of journalists busy.

The "springs" in the name? A piece of 1870s real-estate-developer "misrepresentation". There are no springs. The actual mineral springs are in adjacent Manitou Springs, a smaller and separate municipality.

NOTE: Newspapers' links may change in a short time.

May 03, 2005

Bird-feeder bear

Weather here in the southern Colorado foothills has been miserable--which is to say normal for late April-early May--alternating rain and snow, with the clouds right down on the treetops. Grass and some other plants are green and growing, and those normally make up the spring diet of black bears, but some times you encounter a specialist.

One morning late last week, I came out the front door to find one bird feeder on the ground. It was one of the house-shaped wooden ones that dispenses seeds. The twig that supported it was had not broken: a clue. I got out the Gorilla Glue and clamps to fix a couple of cracks in the lid.

The next day, I found tracks in the mud up behind the house: a smallish black bear.

Last night, returning from walking the dogs at 10:30 p.m., I found two more feeders on the ground, and fresh, post-rain bear tracks in the driveway. Oh joy, it's another "bird-feeder bear." He or she knows where the seed snacks are now. (No wonder one of the dogs started barking loudly at 9 p.m.; bears usually are on the prowl an hour after sunset.)

So now we have to go to Bird Feeder Condition Orange. The feeders (two for sunflower seeds, two for niger thistle seeds) will have to be taken into the garage each evening. What a nuisance. If past experience is a guide, however, after three or four weeks, the bear will stop coming by. And there should be more plant life by then too, and maybe an unlucky fawn to munch. (We keep our garbage can in the garage year-around, of course.)

M.'s reaction was simply, "Poor hungry bear!" And she's right. They are awake, hungry, and they don't yet have a lot to eat because this spring has been slow and cold.

May 01, 2005

"nature blog"

When I reserved this blog name at for my nature-writing class in January 2004, I was surprised to see that it was still available. There already was, which unfortunately is only rarely updated.

And there is a Japanese "Nature*Blog," apparently given over mostly to photos of snow and cherry blossoms in urban parks.

Using Google's computerized translation service on one of the captions, I got this:

"Also the usual park is buried to the snow, everyone's one person as for the person who visits is not."

If you experience it only through the Web, are you the "person who visits is not"?

Ted Haggard Thinks your City is a Whore

Earlier post here.

Religion journalist Jeff Sharlet has a long piece, "Soldiers of Christ," in the May 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine about the Rev. Ted Haggard and his Colorado Springs megachurch, New Life.

My mother grew up in Colorado Springs, and I bounced in and out of there from childhood visits in the Sixties until a period in the Eighties when I lived in adjoining Manitou Springs and worked in downtown Colorado Springs.

So this part of the article caught my eye:

It is not so much the large populations, with their uneasy mix of sinner and saved, that make Christian conservatives leery of urban areas. Even downtown Colorado Springs, presumably as godly as any big town in America, struck the New Lifers I met as unclean. Whenever I asked where to eat, they would warn me away from downtown's neat little grid of cafés and ethnic joints. Stick to Academy [Boulevard of strip malls], they'd tell me, referring to the vein of superstores and prepackaged eateries--P.F. Chang's, California Pizza Kitchen, et al.--that bypasses the city. Downtown, they said, is "confusing."

Although it is not his main goal, Sharlet makes a good case for New Lifers as exurban parasites, taking the services that the city provides but being unwilling to pay for them, either financially or psychically.