April 28, 2006

Grizzly Guys

After his book Grizzly Years came out, Doug Peacock became one of the nation's best-known experts on grizzly bears. So it was probably inevitable that he would be asked to comment on the case of Timothy "Grizzly Man" Treadwell, previously mentioned here and here.

Not being a regular reader of Outside, I missed it. A couple of excerpts:

Treadwell's methods of chumming up to grizzlies, however, were considered unsound by much of the bear-research community. He gave the bears names like Mr. Chocolate and Booble. He filmed himself chanting, "I love you, I love you," as he inched up to a grizzly. Scientists belittled him for his anthropomorphizing. Mainstream researchers either cautioned Treadwell that his behavior would put bears and humans at risk or dismissed him as a loon. Even his friends worried—they thought he should carry bear spray. But after blasting one charging bear, Cupcake, with pepper spray in 1995, Treadwell refused.

Peacock discusses the case with one of the most senior bear researchers, Lance Craighead, who goes against the conventional appraisal of Treadwell:

Home in Montana, I went to see my friend Lance Craighead, one of the preeminent grizzly biologists working today. We lamented the loss—of Treadwell, of Huguenard, of the bears. We couldn't help but like this guy who punched out as he'd wanted to, who'd told people he would be honored to "end up in bear scat," though we agreed that he'd camped in terrible places and gotten way too close to bears. Still, Treadwell may have contributed a significant chapter to the study of grizzly behavior. "His legacy," Craighead said, "may well prove that he did a lot more good for bears than any short-term harm."

Ultimately, Peacock concludes that Treadwell had ten lucky years with bears, and then his luck ran out.

A happy grey day, a bird, a bear

Now, finally, it looks like Springtime in the Rockies. Fat flakes of snow are falling, which started just after I came back from talking to some of the neighbors about a well-use rotation schedule for summer. I have never been happier to see snow.

Our rental house and three other houses share one inadequate well, which means that I suspect we will be having water delivered for the tenants (drained from a tanker truck into their cistern) before the summer is much further along.

The ornithology lab at Cornell University released news of a hybrid chickadee found in British Columbia. Apparently a similar black-capped/mountain chickadee was seen in Colorado ten years ago. Both species are common year-around residents here.

No bear stories here yet, but a man was swatted last Wednesday by a black bear two counties south of here, reports the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Harold Cerda, 29, was working on a private ranch near Stonewall (a rural area about 25 miles west of Trinidad) when he stopped to use an outhouse.

While he was in the outhouse, a bear climbed in the open windows of his car. Cerda’s lunch was on the front seat.

The bear ate Cerda’s lunch while he was in the outhouse. When he came out, the bear was walking in that direction and took a swing at him, hitting him and knocking him down.

After hitting Cerda, the bear ran about 100 feet up a hill and Cerda started walking toward his car, which was about 30 feet away. Just then, the bear came back. Cerda ran to his car and started the engine to roll up the electric windows. “All four windows were down and they go up real slow,” said Cerda. “I got them closed just in time.”

M. hates the electric windows on the Jeep Liberty. In a situation like this, being able to put up all four simultaneously is a plus, but first you would need to turn on the ignition, which takes additional precious seconds.

April 20, 2006

Neutered wolf, transgendered cat

This week's Wet Mountain Tribune carries the news that Colorado Division of Wildlife officer Becky Manly finally caught up with and shot two wolf-hybrids that had been seen repeatedly around the north-central part of the county.

A friend had told me about them in March. It turned out that one was a neutered male. These were not wild wolves that had filtered down from Wyoming. They were most likely some idiot's "pets," turned loose to "fend for themselves."

It's calving time right now, and the two animals had been seen trying to teach themselves to hunt calves.

When M. and I first moved here, we were surprised at the number of dog skulls and in one or two cases, carcasses, that we found on the national forest. At first we thought that these were dogs from houses on our road, killed and dragged off by mountain lions or something.

In case, at least, I didn't recognize the dog--and I know all the dogs around here, better than I know some of the people.

So maybe some of these were the remains of "dumped" dogs as well. It's sad.

Cats can do better at fending for themselves. In the snowy spring of 1995, a long-haired black cat, shy and skittish, started hanging around the house. M. put a sleeping box and food in the garage for it. By the time the weather warmed, it would come in the house--but only if the front door were left open for a quick escape.

For some reason, we thought the cat was female and were calling her Fiona. We learned that she had been acquired by a rancher about two miles away as a barn cat, but she had walked off the job and survived for about three months in the woods on her own.

Eventually, we could handle her, and we took her to the vet for a medical exam and spaying. The vet tech's clippers revealed the truth: she was a he. (This was an embarrassing discovery for us, since we had had various cats before and thought we knew about cats.) So we named him Victor, retaining more or less the some combination of vowels.

Last Saturday, faced with a mounting series of medical problems, we decided to have him put down. When I had the grave ready, the dogs came and sniffed at him. They didn't seem to react much--they are dogs, and it's all about them--but in life, he and Shelby seemed to have a special bond. They even looked alike: both with long, silky black hair and a white blaze on the chest. And Shelby, too, was nearly feral when we got her.

James is leaving Russia

My former student James Bright is nearly finished with his year of teaching in Rostov-on-Don, writing bittersweet blog entries about returning home.

From Pueblo, Colorado, to Rostov--I don't think he ever thought he would be doing anything like that, but to his credit, he did. And I take some credit for "We've Shared a Life," since I all but ordered him at gunpoint to blog about his experiences. Now, if he is anywhere near here next fall, I will have to try to get him to come by and talk to a class.

April 19, 2006


The signs of spring are improving, except for the lack of an April blizzard, compared to what I wrote before. Spring beauties, pasque flowers, dandelions, and sand lilies are all blooming.

The interesting part is watching the wild plums bloom sequentially up our road. The "bloom front" (is there a technical term for that?) takes about a week to go a mile, even though there is only a slight rise in elevation.

I need to re-do the wildflower page that I linked to. I do have plum-blossom photos now. Here is the Pedro de Castañeda quote with links:

There are plums like those of Castille . . ." wrote Pedro de Castañeda, chronicler of the expedition led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado through the American Southwest (1540-1542).

He was not in Colorado, but these are similar plums.

And M. just called from home to say that two evening grosbeaks were visiting one of the sunflower-seed feeders.

April 18, 2006

Birding Babylon, the book

First it was a blog, which I liked. Now it's a book: Birding Babylon: A Soldier's Journal, from Sierra Club Books.

This little book cuts through the politics of war like birdsong, reminding us of our imperishable connection with nature; of how birds and their journeys tie the world together; of the persistence of life even in a wasted land. It's a small act of grace. Jonathan Trouern-Trend served with the 118th Area Support Medical Battalion in Iraq and currently works for the American Red Cross Blood Services in their Epidemiology and Surveillance program. He lives in Marlborough, Connecticut, with his wife and their five children.

Update: The New Yorker takes notice of the book and the blog.

April 16, 2006

Colorado's tartan is more authentic than the Scots varieties

Back, MacGregor! Down, Campbell! I have an historical point to make here.

Today's Denver Post, as part of a Colorful Colorado Quiz, includes a question about "Colorado's official state garment."

No, it's not a synthetic fleece jacket or a Western shirt from Rockmount. What they meant was the Colorado state tartan, which is a pattern "of primary blocks of forest green and cerulean blue separated by broad dividing bands of black, with the forest green checks containing two pairs of tram tracks consisting of lavender and white."

Long ago, Scottish tartans were more attached to places than to families--although the two were more nearly synonymous than now. As is well know, wearing tartans was prohibited after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion.

A generation earlier, a Lancashire Quaker named Thomas Rawlinson had tried to start an iron smelter in Glengarry. Watching the Highlanders try to work while wearing the traditional belted plaid (essentially a wool blanket wrapped around a man's waist, belted, and the excess tossed over one shoulder), he invented a new garment for his workers--just the skirt part, or the kilt as we now know it.

A Scottish member of Parliament, David Stewart of Perthshire, served in the West India Rangers and was then asked in 1817 to write a history of the Black Watch regiment. Sir Walter Scott was writing his novels romanticizing Highlanders then too, and Stewart felt that imbuing Scotsmen with military pride would provide the British Army with a core of strong regiments (which it did).

Stewart founded a "Celtic Society" (soft C, I'll bet), and promoted Highland games and Highland dress, all in the service of empire--including the new-style cut-down kilt. When King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, the kilted Celtic Society provided a guard of honor, and the king wore a kilt too.

In his two-volume book on Scotland, Stewart claimed that Scottish clan chieftain had worn distinctive "setts," or tartan patterns. This was all Romantic moonshine, but the idea caught on. During the royal visit of 1822, the clan chiefs were told to wear their setts, and most had no idea what they should be, but they set out (pun) to find some. Two English brothers, Charles and Ian Hay Allen, self-appointed experts on all things Scottish, also involved themselves with providing the correct patterns for each clan.

So now when you see maps of Scotland with the "correct" tartan applied to each clan's home district, know that a Scot from 1700 or earlier would be astonished at them.

Our saying that any Coloradan can wear the Colorado tartan is every bit as authentic as what David Stewart and the Allen brothers concocted. Buy the necktie or the scarf and wear it proudly. It doesn't matter if your name is Salagovic or Morelli or C de Baca, assuming the color scheme suits you.

(My history is summarized from the chapter "How Myths are Made" in Witches, Druids and King Arthur, by the excellent historian Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol.)

April 10, 2006

Colorado's favorite soldiers

World War II ski trooper reenactors. Photo by Chas S. Clifton. All rights reserved.
My musings on Colorado's late-starting love affair with the 10th Mountain Division is now in Colorado Central magazine's online archive.

These two ski troopers are actually reenactors: Bruce Ryan, left, a Coloradan, and Brian Kealy, an Englishman. They were part of a group being filmed for yet another documentary on the 10th in February 2005 near Camp Hale, below Tennessee Pass.

Passion among the 'bio-crats'

Bob Berwyn at New West Network notes a drop of the usual bureaucratic mask at a recent release of transplanted lynx into the wild:

"It's almost a spiritual thing," said Colorado Division of Wildlife director Bruce McCloskey, describing the process of releasing the predators into the blue-green spruce forests of the Colorado wilderness.

It was interesting to hear McCloskey use such a potentially loaded word in the context of a scientific project; a word more often used by passionate environmental advocates than by government bio-crats. It suggests that there's some emotional investment on the part of the state's scientists, which shouldn't be surprising, but is rarely acknowledged in public and on the record by "government officials."

And if you want to actually see a lynx, getting close to the people in the release program is about the only way to do it, at this time.

Our first 'Hummer'

Mary Scriver writes a couple of lines that define an era in the "New West."

Our first Hummer is now parked in front of the post office every morning -- the driver has bought the Stone School Bed & Breakfast (a conversion of the first public school in Valier) and expects to live “a spiritual life” there with her two golden labs.

Our First Hummer

It took the mourning doves five weeks to move up about 2,000 feet from the Colorado State University campus in Pueblo to here, but we started hearing them calling a couple of days ago.

And today . . . the unmistakeable noise of summer: the buzz of a male broadtailed hummingbird. The usual arrival date is third week of April, so if the first one is here now, that's another sign of how the year is going.

I normally count on one more snowstorm after the hummingbirds return, during which time they huddle on the single clothesline that runs under the porch roof. This year, I don't know. A friend of mine, now gone, who ranched near Penrose, would have said, "All signs fail in times of drought." I ran into his widow yesterday at the Pour House coffeehouse in Florence. She still lives on their ranch, and she was lamenting the lack of run-off.

Of course, some people have real water problems.


The original Earth Day quiz

Maybe you remember Earth Day 1970? Or you learned everything that you know about the 1970s from the television show?

Either way, try the Defenders of Wildlife online Earth Day quiz.

As you answer each question, you will find out the right answer. I was way too pessimistic on #2, as it turned out.

April 05, 2006


Pluvialis went to Turkey to see the total ecclipse of the Sun.

Totality is so incomprehensible for your mental machinery that your physical response becomes hugely apparent. Your intellect can't grasp any of this. Not the dark, nor the sunset clouds on every horizon, nor the stars; just that extraordinary wrongness, up there, that pulls the eyes towards it. The exhilaration is just-barely contained terror.

That bit about "terror" rang a faint bell--a memory of reading as a little boy Isaac Asimov's story "Nightfall," written in 1941 when he was just 21, and anthologized in the 1954 Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (John W. Campbell, Jr., ed.).

(Where that book came from I will never know, since neither of my parents read science fiction at all. But there it was on the living room bookshelf.)

"Nightfall" is set on a planet with six suns and an advanced civilization. But when, for the first time in millennia, all six suns set at one time, civilization collapses. Not just the common herd, but even the scientists go insane at the sight of the stars.

Asimov begins with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: "If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!"

And then he, the non-religious science writer, suggests that such an event would instead merely reduce humans to babbling, riotous, apocalyptically religious killers swamped in a "hopeless flood of black terror."

Maybe the onset of World War II had something to do with the bleakness of his vision of "the Dark and the Cold and the Doom." Maybe not.

Putrid spring

My father came Colorado to study forestry at what was then the Colorado State College of Agriculture & Mechanic Arts. Except for war service from 1942-46, he spent his working life here or in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

In either locale, he had one word for spring: putrid. The wind, the mud, the difficulty in figuring the right time to plant anything, and the sudden blizzards all contributed to that judgment, I am sure. And I can add hay fever to the list, like this when it's at its worst.

It's early April, and we haven't see one spring beauty (Claytonia) blooming in the woods. Not even a dandelion. A couple of crocus have bloomed from bulbs that I planted last fall. My previous pitiful few crocus all died in 2002, the last drought year--"The year of no grass," M. calls it. This summer is not looking much better.

We should be happy at the prospect of semester's end and some vacation time, but it's so easy to brood about water and forest fires.

One good blizzard would sure help my outlook.