July 31, 2009

The Neanderthal Division of Labor & Other Speculations

Scientists are still trying to solve the mystery of our bull-like cousins' disappearance, and Scientific American rounds up more of the current thinking. One speculation:

Neandertals and moderns may have also differed in the way they divvied up the chores among group members. In a paper published in Current Anthropology in 2006, archaeologists Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner, both at the University of Arizona, hypothesized that the varied diet of early modern Europeans would have favored a division of labor in which men hunted the larger game and women collected and prepared nuts, seeds and berries. In contrast, the Neandertal focus on large game probably meant that their women and children joined in the hunt, possibly helping to drive animals toward the waiting men. By creating both a more reliable food supply and a safer environment for rearing children, division of labor could have enabled modern human populations to expand at the expense of the Neandertals.

Are we now spelling it "Neandertal" to approximate the German pronunciation better? No doubt this impulse comes from the same people who brought you "Inka," which spelling I figured was designed to annoy Spanish-writers who rarely need the letter K.

July 25, 2009

Chasing the "Water Dog"?

M. and I had eaten supper, watched In Bruges on DVD (synopsis: everyone dies), and I was working on some eBay listings when the fire siren went off about 9 p.m.

A heavy thunderstorm had passed through earlier, and there was no one on the highway, only a pair of raccoons that I braked to avoid at the state highway junction, about half a mile from the fire house.

I got gotten directions that sent me up a gravel road into the Wet Mountains, into a gated mountain subdivision where I never had gone before. The night was absolutely black, but I followed what I thought were the tracks of the brush truck.

Eventually, I caught it--and two volunteers' private vehicles in convoy--and followed it winding up and up in the dark, switching into four-wheel-drive when the road turned soupy.

At the reporting party's house (a heavily wooded hillside, a steep narrow road--yikes), people said they had seen flames from a lightning strike. Lightning still flickered to the east, over the prairie.

By then two other volunteers on ATVs were exploring the canyon. T., the asst. chief, parked the brush truck at a road fork lower down. Two others guys and I stood at a high point, sniffing and looking. K., the chief, drove up to another high spot.

Nothing. Just radio crackling and comments about certain people seeing alleged fire through "beer goggles."

One firefighter wondered if they had not seen a "water dog," a nickname for those smoke-like columns of mist that crawl up mountainsides in rainy water. (Some people say they are the basis of the "feathered serpent" image.) I have known other cases of "water dogs" being reported as forest fires.

An hour later, we drove back to the fire house. We reasoned thus:

  • Half an inch of rain had fallen this evening, so the woods were wet.
  • No one could find any fire. No homes were threatened.
  • Even the feds would not do much in the middle of the night--and they get paid.
  • Someone could look again in the morning
Of course, there could be a fire smoldering under the pine duff somewhere, but how to find it at night?

In the engine bay, K. shrugged his shoulders. "It's good to see all your smiling faces," he said. And then we went home.

Bear versus "Bear-Proof" Container

Via Camera Trap Codger, a New York Times piece on an Aidirondack black bear who can open the latest back-country food-storage container.

In the process, [one particular female] has emerged as a near-mythical creature in the High Peaks region of the northeastern Adirondacks.

On the local bear scene, the big cinnamon bear that I photographed earlier came back a couple of evenings ago, right at dusk. Fisher, the new dog, was outside. He must have smelled it, because he took off up the ridge to where it was--but he came back when I called. (Good dog!) And although I could see the bear from the back steps, it did not stay in sight long enough for me to fetch my camera.

So I have set a scout camera in the general area where it was, in hopes that it will stroll past.

We have been seeing more flipped-over stones (dinner-plate size or larger) in that area up behind the house. For the sake of the lichens on their surfaces, I have been replacing them right-side-up. And then I think, how weird it is to clean up after bears?

Birding by the (Trustworthy) Numbers?

One in five Americans watches birds, according to a recent item on the Outdoor Wire.

Incidentally, the link to the survey there seems not to work. Try this one.

I would like to think it's true, but I suppose the key term is "watches." It seems unlikely that 20 percent of the population are serious birders, as cool as that would be.

A couple of weeks ago, M. and I camped at a lake on the Pike National Forest with some friends. A bald eagle was hanging around the area--the first one that I have ever noted there, and I usually visit at least annually in June or July.

We all watched it, making us "wildlife watchers." But the woman who pointed it out to me also referred to a great blue heron as a "crane," so it's not like she is a birder.

Speaking of that, my "I wish I had brought a camera" moment this week when M. and I were walking the dogs after supper and saw a great blue heron fly up off the creek to perch at the very tip of a mature ponderosa pine. It looked like a Chinese painting.

The 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Related Recreation runs 168 pages, so there is more to be studied there.

July 22, 2009

Blog Stew with Sick French Chipmunks

Diseased French chipmunks threaten Britain. It's in the Daily Mail, so it must be true. The chipmunks are not really French, however, but Siberian. What a relief.

Mary Scriver scans a bat, possibly a diseased bat. It is not, however, a French bat.

Patrick Burns has a few issues with Wendell Berry and what Burns calls "entertainment agriculture."

• Like most outdoor writers I have known (and me when I was one), Chad Love blanches at the tsunami of sheer gadgetry (which he is expected to promote), but he still thinks there is something innately valuable in hunting and fishing themselves.

Sixty Beavers per Mile?

High Country News' recent article on how beavers shaped the West, "Voyage of the Dammed," (great headline) surprised me -- and some commenters -- with its estimate of pre-fur trade population figures.

Historical trapping records in the Colorado Rockies show "60 to 80 beaver" per mile of stream, says Trey Schillie, an ecosystem services analyst for the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Region. That abundance was repeated across the West.

The message:

Castor canadensis, believe it or not, is a time shifter. The humble, hardworking rodent, through its dams and ponds, can extend the release of water late into summer, saturating the ground and healing watersheds. It has the power to re-create the primordial, wetter West that existed for millennia -- a West we just missed seeing.

We had some beavers on our creek--they seem to have moved downstream, after eating all the willow and narrowleaf cottonwood that they could get near their lodge.

Their dam "encroached" on some neighbors' lawn, so eventually they breached it -- after the beavers were gone, I want to think.

Everyone else was pleased to see them, if only for the thought that the dam (still holding back some water) would raise the water table and hence help our wells.

July 19, 2009

Lake DeWeese, July 19

Trolling the north shore, 1.9 mph,
Spinning rod firmly grasped in my hands,
I arrive at the portal of dreams.

July 17, 2009

Pueblo Bear Rampage

My minor bear issues pale next to this.

During the drought year of 2002, a bear did kill a number of chickens and ducks at a neighbor's house by crashing through their coop. The district wildlife manager set a trap (and offered her some 12-gauge rubber bullets for bear-discouragement), but I do not recollect the bear ever being trapped.

Here is a shorter Denver Post version in case the Chieftain's link goes away, which they frequently do.

July 15, 2009

The Primeval Rain Forest, Not

On the tracks of Colonel Fawcett's last expedition, writer David Gann paid a jungle visit on anthropologist Michael J. Heckenberger, author of The Ecology of Power: Culture, Place and Personhood in the Southern Amazon, AD 1000-2000,

Heckenberger writes of our tendency to view Amazonian Indians as natürvolkern—archaic and unchanging—who live in either (a) Edenic paradise or (b) "green hell." (For the latter, see Werner Herzog's memoir of filming Fitzcarraldo, published as Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo.)

It's the old virgin/whore dichotomy again, which we perpetually apply to the natural world.

A few observations, tangential to Heckenberger's thesis but more interesting to me:

• The natives probably seemed Edenic to the first naturalists, who saw the area beginning in the 1700s, after European diseases and, in some places, the slave trade, had reduced populations considerably. Native populations bottomed in the mid-20th century. Actually, Col. Percy Fawcett was right: there was a lost civilization, but its monuments were horizontal--dikes, roads, canals, moats, earthworks--not vertical.

• Those higher populations had affected the landscape considerably. The author observes,

Today, I would not assume that any part of the forest is "pristine" without a detailed examination on the ground. In place of small paths in the forest and minor openings related to plaza villages and gardens, I now envision tree-lined causeways, well-maintained, broad roads, large patchy tracts of agricultural fields leading out from the towns and villages ... and an equally well-constructed wetland environment, including major transportation canals, managed ponds, improved fishing, drinking and bathing reservoirs, raised causeways, wells, raised fields, and road systems, among other features.

In archaeology, he notes, "Amazonia has just appreared on the intellectual horizon."

I wonder if the activists who write enthusiastically of Amazonia as "the lungs of the Earth" and so on would falter if they could not think of it as a pristine region inhabited by natives "living in tune with the Earth." Can we value that nature that is not "pristine"?

July 14, 2009

Suddenly, a Bear

There we were, peacefully watching Breaking Bad on DVD at dusk when the dogs alerted and raced out into the backdoor dog run. This bear was a short distance away. It was the first bear that we had actually seen all summer.

July 13, 2009

Another Walk in Mason Gulch

Four years after the Mason Gulch Fire, M. and I took our annual anniversary hike through the corner of the burn nearest our home.
Burned cottonwood in Mason Gulch. Photo (c) Chas S. Clifton
She calls this "the palomino tree." It was one of the cottonwoods burned along the gulch.

The wet early summer has been good for the grass, as both photos show. Some of this grass may have arrived under this contract. Unfortunately, cheatgrass is spreading too. There ought to be national honors awaiting the scientist(s) who can find the herbicide, insect, or fungus that works only on cheatgrass.

We did not have a great wildflower show this year--the rains came a bit late for that--but this Asclepius tuberosa (butterfly weed) looks happy. Lots of it around this year.

Blog Stew with Minerals

• The Environmental Protection Agency works on stronger rules for hardrock mining clean-up.

Why your kid needs an aquarium.

• It is, the Denver Post proclaims, "a banner year for bugs." Even the British have noticed.

Coyotes eat Ozzie Osbourne's Pomeranian, and other coyote-related items from Patrick Burns.

July 04, 2009

Fisher and the Mouse Tree

In this photo, Fisher and Chessie is chewing on the trunk of a Gambel oak tree (using the word "tree" generously).

A couple of weeks ago, Shelby, our other dog, who loves to hunt rodents, got real interested in this tree. It does seem to have a mostly hollow trunk with openings at the bottom and up where Fisher is chewing.

Fisher joined in -- and he has not forgotten. Every time our morning walk route takes him past this tree, he chews and whines and wails until he is dragged away.

Later today, I was in the house when I heard M.'s voice in the distance shouting, "Drop it!"

She had taken both dogs on a short walk. Fisher, off-leash, had found a dead bird and picked it up. She worried that the bird might have died of disease -- but all I could think was, "He picked up a real bird! Yes! He's getting it."

And that is this week's progress report on Fisher, who has now been with us for not quite two months.